SALT LAKE CITY — On Dec. 12 before the Utah Jazz faced the Miami Heat at Vivint Arena, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra predicted the Jazz, who were 13th in the Western Conference at the time, would move up the standings a great deal over the next two months.
Six-and-a-half weeks later, it’s fair to say Utah is ahead of Spoelstra’s schedule. With their 106-102 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves Friday at home in their 50th game of the season, the Jazz moved into sole possession of sixth in the West entering Saturday’s games, the highest they’ve been since the season was just a few days old.
The Western Conference, which was unbelievably packed the first two months of the season, has seen considerable evening out, as just six games separated the top 14 teams on Dec. 12 but now 15.5 games do. Still, it’s crowded in the playoff race. Entering Saturday, just three games separated Utah from the third-place Oklahoma City Thunder, while the Jazz were just one game away from being out of the top eight altogether.
As such, the Jazz are now jockeying for playoff positioning, but coaches and players have to balance urgency with trying to not think about the standings too much.
“It changes so much that I don’t feel like we react to it,” head coach Quin Snyder said. “It’s more about how you’re playing, because night to night something can change where one team wins, the other team loses, vice versa, everybody wins, and you can drive yourself crazy trying to figure out, ‘oh, this is good for us,’ or ‘that’s not good’ or whatever, so I stay away from that. There’s plenty of preparation to do for the teams we’re playing.
“I think everybody in the West would probably agree that it’s just so difficult to predict and there’s so much variability, but that’s not to say you’re not aware of it, of course.”
Different players say they have different approaches to looking at the standings. Jae Crowder, for one, said he doesn’t look at them, while Joe Ingles joked that he keeps better track of Australia’s National Basketball League standings than the NBA ones.
“I’ve been in a few playoff races, so I’ve learned over time to just take it one game at a time,” Crowder said.
On the flip side, Rudy Gobert acknowledged that while he doesn’t necessarily seek out the opportunity to look at the standings, it’s rather hard to be completely shielded from seeing them on TV and other places.
Still, he said he and his teammates have adopted Crowder’s approach of trying not to let what’s happening in the standings affect their play.
“It’s a long season,” he said. “Just being focused on the moment. Just focus on the next play. The rest doesn’t really matter, and then good things happen. That’s the mindset we are trying to have every night. It’s not always easy, but we’re doing a pretty good job of it.”
Having won 10 of its last 12 games, Utah has a notable week coming up as far as playoff positioning is concerned, as two of its four opponents, the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets, were the teams immediately ahead of it in the standings entering Saturday.
After facing the Timberwolves again on Sunday (this time on the road), the Jazz will play the Trail Blazers Wednesday in Portland, then the lowly Atlanta Hawks Friday at home, followed by the Rockets on Saturday, also at Vivint Arena.
“It’s good to be back in a playoff race,” Gobert said. “We know we are a playoff team, and we know that we can be a lot better in the (standings) than we are right now, so just got to keep getting better, keep working, and we’ll be good.”