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When it comes to the Utah Jazz down the stretch, there is good news and bad

Yes, the Jazz are dealing with injuries and a mild slump, and could even face the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. But if they do, LeBron James will learn why this year’s squad isn’t so boring

Utah Jazz forward Royce O’Neale (23) signals his thre-pointer late in the fourth quarter during the Philadelphia 76ers at Utah Jazz NBA basketball game at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 15, 2021.
Utah Jazz forward Royce O’Neale signals his 3-pointer late in the fourth quarter against Philadelphia at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 15, 2021. The Jazz’s proficiency from distance is what makes them such a successful and dangerous team.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

First, the good news for the Utah Jazz:

They’re going to have a well-earned high seed in the playoffs.

The bad news: They may have to go through the defending champion Lakers, even possibly in the first round (which follows a play-in round for teams that finish 7-10). The Jazz lost in the first round of the playoffs in 2019 and 2020.

Beset with injuries to LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers found themselves alone in fifth place in the Western Conference after their victory over the Nuggets Monday night (only one game north of seventh seed Portland), but now their stars are back and, well, you can see where this is going. James re-injured his ankle Sunday night and his status was uncertain heading into the week, but it’s likely only a temporary setback. Prior to Monday night’s game against the Nuggets, the Lakers had won only three of their last 10 games, but you get the feeling they’re going to pull their act together in time for the playoffs.

Now, late in the season, it’s the Jazz who have injury issues to key players. Donovan Mitchell has been out for a couple of weeks with an injury, and Mike Conley has missed several games with an injury as well. All of which coincides with a mild slump.

The Jazz, who have been on a tear for four months, have faded, at least by their standards. After winning nine in a row during a stretch that began in March, which improved their record to a league-leading 38-11, they had won only eight of their last 15 before Monday night’s win over the Spurs. As of Tuesday, their lead over the hard-charging Suns was just a half a game.

Two of the Jazz’s losses were in overtime and another loss was decided by one point, but a loss is a loss and this is not a good time to slump. The Jazz have only six games remaining in their regular season and then it’s time for the playoffs.

(On the bright side, the teams with the three best records in the Western Conference — Suns, Jazz and Nuggets — are not one of the super teams built by colluding players. Anything but another repeat of super teams in the NBA Finals is an improvement in a league that has zero parity and doesn’t care.)

Anyway, through bad luck or timing or whatever you want to call it, the Jazz, who have been front-runners in the league since the season began in December, could end up opening the playoffs against the Lakers. It will be Showtime vs. Those Boring Guys from Salt Lake City.

As you might recall, that’s what James thinks of the Jazz. James has a habit of saying things that are uninformed and this was nothing serious — unlike many of his gaffes — but it makes you wonder if he owns a TV or reads the news.

It began after James and Kevin Durant, acting as captains of the All-Star Game, were choosing their teams for the game and made Jazz players Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert the last picks.

“You guys got to understand,” James tried to explain. “Just like in video games, growing up, we never played with Utah. Even as great as Karl Malone and John Stockton was, we would have never picked those guys in a video game — never.

In other words, the Jazz are dull. Boring.

(This caused Charles Barkley to respond, “I’m not going for this Utah Jazz slander right now … This is slander, America.”)

OK, who cares, right? But James should at least update his material. He’s a little behind the times. About two decades. The Jazz were boring under Stockton and Malone, with their sleep-inducing pick and roll, which, dull or not, carried them to two NBA Finals. Everyone thought they were boring in the 1990s.

But this is not your father’s Utah Jazz.

Nearly half their shots are from behind the 3-point arc — a league-leading 49.2%. They are making an average of 17 3-pointers a game, which translates to 51 points per game. To put it another way, 44% of their points on an average night are from behind the arc. They rank third in the league in scoring, at 116.9 points per game. They rank third in the league in 3-point accuracy, at 39.1%. A month ago they set an NBA record for most 3-pointers in a half, with 18.

The Jazz are winning almost 72% of their games. That’s not too boring. The Lakers are winning 58%, even with James’ handpicked squad.

The Jazz’s margin of victory is a league-leading 9.0. That IS boring, but what can they do?

Here is what Mitchell has done this year, if you can stay awake long enough to read about a Jazz player: He has averaged 26 points and six assists per game. He ranks 11th in the league in scoring, seven spots ahead of James.

Still awake?

Then there’s Gobert. He leads the NBA in field-goal percentage, making nearly 68% of his shots. He ranks second in the league in rebounding, at 13.4 per game (James is 33rd), and second in blocked shots, at 2.8 per. He also plays defense, something James famously does not do. Gobert has been named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year twice in the last three seasons.

James thought they were too boring to choose for his All-Star team, but he might be stuck with them as a strong early-round opponent in the playoffs.