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Brad Rock: Jazz made strides this season, but enough to topple the Rockets?

Utah Jazz forward Jae Crowder (99) smiles at teammate  Ricky Rubio after receiving a technical foul during Utah's game with the  Las Angeles Lakers at Vivint Arena in Salt lake City on Wednesday, March 27, 2019. Utah won 115-100. The Jazz appear on a roll
Utah Jazz forward Jae Crowder, right, smiles at teammate Ricky Rubio after receiving a technical foul on Wednesday, March 27, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

HOUSTON — Before and after their final home game, Jazz players took the microphone to thank Utahns for being “the best fans in the NBA.” This likely occurred in 29 other NBA arenas, this week, as teams closed out their home seasons.

Still, no one could accuse Jazz fans of disinterest. They attended games religiously. Actually, most religions would sell their souls to have that kind of attendance. The Jazz sold out all 41 home dates.

But now the interest rises sharply as the playoffs begin Sunday at the Toyota Center. Even though the Jazz and Rockets split their regular-season series, it would be notable for Utah to beat a team whose talent is championship-worthy. This is the same Houston team that dismissed the Jazz from the playoffs in five games last spring. The Jazz were quiet in the offseason trade and free agent markets, drafting Grayson Allen — who incidentally scored 40 points in an overtime loss to the Clippers on Wednesday — but otherwise stayed low key.

For the third straight season, the Jazz are a No. 5 playoff seed, again opening on the road. This raises the question of whether they actually improved in a year’s time. Indications are they are exactly what their win-loss record says: slightly better than before.

They’ll need to be much better to get past the Rockets.

Can they do it? As longtime New York sports anchor Warner Wolf used to say: “Let’s go to the videotape!”

The numbers do lean toward a better Jazz team than in 2018. Experience matters in sports and dating. Their record last year was 48-34, this year 50-32. Both their home and road records were one game better than a year ago. In the demanding Western Conference, they went 30-22, which is below last year’s 34-18. But that says as much about the rising level of competition as it does the Jazz.

Their record this year against conference playoff teams is 13-12, compared to 12-16 last year.

Scoring, field-goal percentage, 3-point field goals made and rebounding were all slightly up, while 3-point field goal and free-throw percentages were slightly down.

The team’s offensive rating was up but its defensive rating narrowly fell.

That’s the short story on the team as a whole.

Individually, most players were better this year, but not all. Donovan Mitchell’s scoring, assists and rebounds went up. Rudy Gobert’s scoring and rebounding rose, too. So did the Jazz center’s overall mojo. The same week Gobert mimicked a John Coltrane album cover as part of a Defensive Player of the Year campaign, he also imitated Allen Iverson.

“Rudy had a crossover,” marveled Mitchell after the Jazz beat Denver. “I’ve never seen that before.”

Memo to doubters everywhere: Never undersell the Stifle Tower.

Others, too, improved. Jae Crowder’s numbers inched up. Derrick Favors showed his value by playing big when needed, and under control the rest of the time. His scoring and rebounding were slightly down, but his basketball IQ soared. Ricky Rubio’s scoring was the same but his assists rose. Sadly, Rubio’s games-played fell this year due to injuries.

Dante Exum, who performed well in the playoffs last year, is out for the season. Joe Ingles’ scoring and steals went up but his 3-point percentage slipped considerably. Royce O’Neale’s key numbers slightly rose. Thabo Sefolosha was available for 15 more games than last year.

Kyle Korver, a Jazz acquisition early this season, brought in nine points a game and a high 3-point shooting percentage.

This all points to a marginally better team.

“Thank you guys for another great season,” Mitchell said in his walk-off interview after Tuesday’s game. “We have a lot left in us.”

He can only hope.

The Jazz have played well defensively against the Rockets this year. Still, facing them in the first round is a daunting prospect. Being slightly better won’t be enough to prevail; they need to be a lot better. Otherwise, the only difference this year will be which round the Rockets send them home.