10:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Jazz -5, Over/Under: 220.5
A pair of playoff teams traveling in opposite directions clash tonight as the Boston Celtics look to cap off a successful west coast road trip against the struggling Utah Jazz, from Vivint Smart Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah. While many operated under the belief that the Eastern Conference has been a proverbial one-horse race, the Celtics (40-17, 3rd in Eastern Conference) have offered a different opinion, vaulting themselves up the Standings in the East. Winners of thirteen of their last sixteen games, Boston has managed to position themselves in striking distance of the Toronto Raptors, whom they currently trail by a game and a half for Second in the Conference. Granted they’re still some ways behind the Milwaukee Bucks (9.5 Games), but with five weeks left in the Regular Season you can’t fault the faithful in Beantown for getting a little full of themselves, particularly given their team’s recent form. Remember two years ago when the young Celtics advanced all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals without the services of Star Point Guard, Kyrie Irving, who missed the entirety of that particular Playoff Run with a knee injury, pushing the Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games? Now, do you also remember when they added further full to the fire that they were indeed better off without Irving, going 12-3 in his absence last season? To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Brad Stevens’ charges have definitively proven that they’re fully capable of competing without the mercurial All-Star, particularly with another All-Star Point Guard in his place, Kemba Walker (21.8 PTS, 42.9% FG, 38.8% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 5.0 AST, 1.0 STL, 21.0 PER), who has been a far better fit for Stevens’ system. The 29-Year Old has been a hit in Boston, where he has flourished in their Small-Ball Rotation, shooting a stellar 38.8% from beyond the arc, the second-highest mark of his career. However, he suffered a sprained knee in the Celtics’ 141-133 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers right before the All-Star Break, sitting out the entirety of this four-game Western Road Trip. To their credit, his teammates haven’t missed a beat, going 2-1 heading into tonight’s meeting with Utah, and very nearly could be 3-0 following their spirited performance at the West-leading Los Angeles Lakers, who they gave everything they could handle in a narrow 112-114 loss. Third-year Swingman, Jayson Tatum (23.1 PTS, 44.9% FG, 39.5% 3FG, 6.9 REB, 2.9 AST, 1.3 STL, 20.3 PER), was phenomenal in torching the Lakers for a season-high Forty-One Points on 12-of-20 shooting (60.0%), including 4-of-7 from downtown (57.1%), and 13-of-15 from the Free-Throw Line (86.7%). That torrid form continued in last night’s 118-106 victory over the shorthanded Portland Trail Blazers, as the 21-Year Old put on another show, knocking down a career-best 8-of-12 from long range (66.7%) en route to a game-high Thirty-Six Points, all but ten of which coming in the Second Half. This was one of those nights in which he was simply in the zone, for all of his makes came from the field, as he didn’t attempt a single Free-Throw, shooting a blistering 14-of-22 overall (63.6%). It was just another stellar performance for a blossoming young star; Tatum has been on fire since the Break, averaging 35.0 Points per Game on 54.0% shooting, including a ridiculous 55.2% from the perimeter, along with 7.0 Rebounds, 2.0 Assists, and 1.7 Blocks. Fellow youngster, Jaylen Brown (20.4 PTS, 49.4% FG, 38.1% 3FG, 6.4 REB, 2.1 AST, 1.1 STL, 17.3 PER), chipped in with Twenty-Four Points as every member of the Starting Five finished in double-figures, including unheralded Center, Daniel Theis (8.8 PTS, 55.5% FG, 31.9% 3FG, 6.5 REB, 1.6 AST, 1.3 BLK, 17.7 PER), who posted totals of Ten Points, Nine Rebounds, and Three Assists. While that may not seem like much, Theis may just end up being the most important cog in this machine for one very important reason: size. Coming into this campaign, the Celtics drew a great deal of criticism for allowing veteran Forward, Al Horford, to leave in Free Agency, while failing to add much size at all during the Offseason, leaving them dangerously thin in the Frontcourt. At 6-8, Theis has been expected to man the middle against much larger opponents, with his teammates, particularly Tatum and Brown, expected to punch above their weight class and crash the boards, which they’ve done. Five different players average over 6.0 Rebounds, with Boston ranking Eleventh Overall in Defensive Rebounding Percentage (78.0%) and Eighth in Offensive Rebounding Percentage (23.6%). Veteran Center, Enes Kanter (8.6 PTS, 57.5% FG, 8.0 REB, 1.0 AST, 22.1 PER), was added late in Free Agency, to help in this regard, with the towering Turkish International leading the team with 8.0 Rebounds per Game in just 18.1 Minutes a night. Look for both he and Theis to play a large role (no pun intended) in this matchup with the Jazz, who sport one of the largest Frontcourts in the league.
Meanwhile, somebody may want to inform the Jazz (36-21, 5th in Western Conference) that the All-Star Break is in fact over, for since receiving that week off they’ve yet to win a single game, dropping three in a row in fact. This is in stark contrast for a team that had entered the Break on a four-game wining streak, and as a result have seen their standing in the West fall to fifth, which of course translates to hitting the road in any potential First Round Series. Of course, in each of the past three seasons this has been a club that typically found their form over the course of the second half of the term, going 18-7 last year, 18-6 in the campaign before that, and 16-9 in the one prior to that. However, in these last three outings Utah has been getting absolutely humbled, outscored by a margin of 13.0 Points per Game, while exhibiting some serious struggles on the offensive end of the court. They’ve shot just 32.3% from beyond the arc, a steep decline from the 38.5% they had netted beforehand, while dishing out fewer Assists (19.7) and committing more Turnovers (16.3). Sure they’ve gotten to the Charity Stripe a lot more (31.0 FTA), but that hasn’t really made much of a difference. Conversely, they haven’t been much better on the defensive end either, which must really be driving Quin Snyder nuts, for this is where his charges have hung their hat throughout his tenure as Head Coach. On the season, the Jazz rank in the Top-10 in a slew of defensive categories including Points Allowed (107.9), Field Goal Percentage (45.1%) and Two-Point Percentage (50.7%) Allowed, Free-Throws Attempted (21.2) and Made (16.3), Assists Allowed (20.9), Defensive Rebounding Percentage (79.6%), Free-Throw/Field Goal Attempted Allowed (.182), and Effective Field Goal Percentage Defense (51.3%). However, in these last three games, they’ve allowed 121.3 Points on 49.7% shooting, including an insane 47.8% from downtown, and 25.0 Assists. Compounding matters is that all three of these defeats have come at home, where again they’ve been otherwise very good (20-8), but you wouldn’t know from watching them of late, with Monday Night’s embarrassing 111-131 capitulation to the Phoenix Sun proving to be the most alarming. All things considered, the hosts got off to a fairly solid start, outscoring Phoenix 35-27 in the First Quarter, in which they shot 11-of-16 from the field (68.8%), including a blistering 6-of-9 from beyond the arc (66.7%), led by third-year Guard, Donovan Mitchell (24.4 PTS, 45.9% FG, 36.7% 3FG, 4.3 REB, 4.3 AST, 1.1 STL, 19.4 PER), who scored Eleven of his team-high Thirty-Eight Points. Unfortunately, they would not be able to keep up that momentum, as the visitors would go on to outscore them 104-76 over the final three periods of play. Where to start with this disjointed mess of a performance for the Jazz? Yes, Mitchell dropped Thirty-Eight Points, and Utah netted a season-high Thirty-Eight Free-Throws, but they also committed Nineteen Assists, were outrebounded 30-38, and were outscored 42-66 in the Paint. The Suns got practically whatever they wanted on that night, dishing out Thirty-Three Assists, with former Jazz Point Guard, Ricky Rubio, coming back to haunt his old teammates with Twenty-Two Points, Six Rebounds, Eleven Assists, and Seven Steals. His replacement, Mike Conley (13.4 PTS, 39.4% FG, 35.2% 3FG, 3.2 REB, 4.1 AST, 12.7 PER), continued his struggles after arriving in Salt Lake City in the Offseason, managing just Eight Points and an Assist, while committing Three Turnovers. This situation certainly bears watching moving forward, for many felt that Utah’s acquisition of the veteran Point Guard would help put them into the upper echelon of the Western Conference, but the 32-Year Old’s transition has been anything but smooth. Conley has played in just Thirty-Four Games, making only Twenty-Eight Starts, while shooting a meager 39.4% from the field, the second-lowest figure of his career, giving further credence to the idea that he may be better suited coming off the Bench. Some of Snyder’s most successful Lineups don’t even feature him, particularly the Quintet of Rudy Gobert (15.5 PTS, 68.7% FG, 14.3 REB, 1.5 AST, 1.9 BLK, 22.0 PER), Joe Ingles (9.9 PTS, 43.0% FG, 39.3% 3FG, 3.9 REB, 5.2 AST, 12.1 PER), Bojan Bogdanovic (20.6 PTS, 44.8% FG, 41.8% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 2.1 AST, 16.0 PER), Royce O’Neale (6.0 PTS, 44.5% FG, 40.1% 3FG, 5.2 REB, 2.5 AST, 9.1 PER), and the aforementioned Mitchell, which has featured together more so than any other Lineup, putting together a Plus-15.3 Point Differential. In fact, of the eight different Lineups that have posted a Point Differential of Plus-10.0 or more, only three of them even feature the veteran. Sometimes the best move is the one that you don’t make, and sometimes making a move can have an adverse effect on your team, and this certainly appears to be a case of the latter. We’re not saying that keeping Rubio in Utah was the right thing to do, but Conley looks like a shell of the player he was five years ago, having never really returned to form after tearing his Achilles just a dozen games into the 2017-18 campaign. Utah will be looking to salvage something from this lengthy six-game Home Stan, which will conclude on Friday with struggling Washington, and then will hit the road for a four-game road trip along the East Coast, where they’ll face these Celtics one more, along with some easier matchups against the likes of the Cavaliers, Knicks, and Pistons.