SALT LAKE CITY — Much has been made during the Utah Jazz’s run of 18 wins in their last 20 games about how their schedule has been rather easy, as only two of those victories have come against teams above .500.
Things are about to get significantly more difficult over the next month, not to mention more important from a playoff positioning standpoint, even as the Jazz still have 38 games remaining in the regular season.
Starting on Saturday afternoon against the Dallas Mavericks at Vivint Arena, Utah’s next four games are against teams in the top eight of the Western Conference. Seven of their 10 games after that through Feb. 26 are also against squads currently in playoff position, with five being against Western Conference foes.
Alone in second in the West entering Friday night’s games, the Jazz won’t play the two Los Angeles teams that are sandwiching them in the standings during this stretch, but in addition to facing the fifth-place Mavericks twice, they’ll also see the fourth-place Denver Nuggets and eighth-place San Antonio Spurs two times apiece over the next month and the sixth-place Houston Rockets three times.
Five of those games will be at Vivint Arena and four will be on the road. Just one game is separating Utah and Denver in the standings entering Friday night.
Additionally, there will be two games against the Portland Trail Blazers, who aren’t currently in the West’s top eight, but they’ve been incredibly ravaged by injury this season and are getting healthier.
Jazz point guard Mike Conley acknowledged after practice on Friday that the team isn’t ignoring the fact that the schedule is about to get more difficult. Rather, they’re looking forward to embracing the challenge after cruising through much of the last six weeks.
“We’re not shying away from the task at hand,” Conley said. “We understand that we have a lot of good teams coming in and when we go on the road as well, but I think we’re just in a good place physically and mentally where every day we’re coming in, working, trying to get better each day and worry about the next game, not looking too far ahead.”
The obvious flip side of playing these teams so many times over the next few weeks is that Utah hasn’t seen any of the above listed playoff teams at all this season, and they’ve only played the Trail Blazers once.
“I wouldn’t say it’s problematic. It’s unique in a certain sense,” Utah head coach Quin Snyder said Friday of the fact his team has had such little firsthand look at so many in-conference contenders. “At the same time, we’ve played the Clippers and Lakers and (Oklahoma City Thunder). That’s part of the scheduling.”
Saturday’s contest against Dallas will be the lone time wunderkind Luka Doncic will play in Salt Lake City (barring a playoff series) this season. The 20-year-old from Slovenia was named a starter on Thursday for the Feb. 16 NBA All-Star Game and is averaging 29.1 points, 9.6 rebounds and nine assists per game.
“Man, he’s impressive,” Conley said. “He’s got everything in his game. With his size and skill, he’s one of the few players that can do what he can do, so it’s going to be a tough challenge for all of us. We’re definitely locked in and going to try to figure out a way to try to slow him down as best we can.”
Saturday’s game will be somewhat unique given its 3 p.m. start as part of the NBA’s efforts to make more games available to watch at an earlier hour in Europe and Africa. Rather than point to anything negative about a different start time, Conley said it’ll be nice to be done earlier than usual.
“I think mostly all of us like it,” he said. “You get to go eat dinner afterward at a good time, you know, 7 p.m. instead of 10, 11:30. I think it’s really cool.”
On Friday afternoon, the Mavericks reportedly made trades to acquire centers Willie Cauley-Stein and Justin Patton in the wake of the Achilles injury Dwight Powell suffered earlier this week. Dallas reportedly sent the Golden State Warriors a second-round pick that once belonged to the Jazz in exchange for Cauley-Stein.