9:00 PM EST, NBA TV – Line: Jazz -3.5, Over/Under: 221
Two of the West’s best get together for an early season clash as the vastly-improved Phoenix Suns head to Salt Lake City to battle the Utah Jazz on New Year’s Eve at Vivint Smart Home Arena. If there was one team that was the consensus choice to be the most-improved coming into this season, it would have to be the Suns (3-1, T-1st in Western Conference), who in the early stages of the campaign have already looked the part of a Playoff side in the annually stacked Western Conference. Indeed, the writing has been on the wall for some time now for Phoenix, who planted the seeds of this revival well over a year ago. After missing the Postseason in nine consecutive years, the franchise completely remade themselves, with (much maligned Owner) Robert Sarver appointing (former Shooting Guard) James Jones as lead executive and hiring the venerable Monty Williams as Head Coach. Despite getting off to an inspiring 7-4 start, Williams’ charges quickly came crashing back down to Earth, losing sixteen of their following twenty contests en route to earning a 26-39 record before the league suspended play due to COVID-19. However, the Suns would surprisingly meet the criteria to be invited to the Bubble, where they took full advantage of the opportunity granted them, winning all eight of their games and just missing out on a spot in the Play-In. Determined to prove that that stretch was no aberration, the team pulled off arguably the biggest trade of the (abridged) Offseason, acquiring (Point Guard) Chris Paul (11.8 PTS, 40.5% FG, 25.0% 3FG, 3.8 REB, 9.5 AST, 1.0 STL, 19.3 PER) in a deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Of course, the nine-time All-NBA selection worked wonders for a young Thunder side last year, piloting them to a surprising Five Seed and pushing the Houston Rockets to seven games in the First Round of the Playoffs. Even at the age of thirty-five his skills haven’t diminished, with his tenacity and leadership proving essential to the development of so many of their young players. Needless to say, these were the qualities that Phoenix needed, as they desperately sought out a shepherd for their young studs, (Shooting Guard) Devin Booker (19.0 PTS, 45.3% FG, 30.8% 3FG, 4.8 REB, 3.5 AST, 1.8 STL, 10.9 PER) and (Center) DeAndre Ayton (11.5 PTS, 52.8% FG, 11.8 REB, 1.8 AST, 1.0 BLK, 18.2 PER). And it’s with that said that Paul rejoined Williams, whom he played under for one season with the (then) New Orleans Hornets (2010-11), and to the surprise of absolutely nobody he has continued to work his magic with yet another young team; seven different players average in double-figures in points, with Paul slowing the pace of play (98.3 possessions per 48 minutes, 28th Overall) and cutting down on their mistakes (12.8 turnovers per game, 3rd Overall), while spreading the wealth with 26.0 assists per game (9th Overall). As a result, Ayton has become an emerging force in the paint where he has shot 52.9% while adding 11.8 rebounds and 1.0 block, while two-way Swingman, Mikal Bridges (15.5 PTS, 53.7% FG, 45.5% 3FG, 6.0 REB, 0.5 AST, 0.8 STL, 1.5 BLK, 20.4 PER) has flourished with career-highs in points (15.5) field goal percentage (53.7%), three-point percentage (45.5%), rebounds (6.0) and blocks (1.5), with the sharpshooting Cameron Johnson (15.5 PTS, 51.2% FG, 40.0% 3FG, 2.5 REB, 0.8 AST, 1.0 STL, 23.8 PER) benefitting as well, knocking down 40.0% of his attempts from beyond the arc. The biggest turnaround though has come on the defensive end of the court, where Williams has seen his troops yield the fewest points in the league (98.5), which is a major improvement over last year’s group, which allowed 113.4 points per game (20th Overall). Their pressure on the perimeter has been particularly impressive where they’ve quickly closed out on opposing shooters, clogged passing lanes, and swarmed ballhandlers, permitting a scant 25.2% shooting from downtown (2nd Overall) and the fewest assists in the league (19.0).
When we last saw the Suns, they were busy drubbing another of the league’s rising young teams, the New Orleans Pelicans, in a 111-86 victory that didn’t even feel that close. Leading 31-29 after the First Quarter, the hosts put their collective feet on the gas and outscored the visitors 35-15 in the second period en route to heading into Halftime with a commandinng-22-point advantage. It would be more of the same following intermission with Phoenix outscoring New Orleans 34-17 in the third stanza, further pushing the affair out of contention. In the end, the home side cruised to victory despite only receiving a combined seventeen points from Paul and Booker, with the Supporting Cast going OFF as six of their number ended the game in double-figures. (Veteran Forward) Jae Crowder (11.0 PTS, 41.7% FG, 36.0% 3FG, 5.5 REB, 2.5 AST, 14.7 PER) led the way with a season-high twenty-one points on 6-of-11 shooting, including 5-of-8 from three (62.5%), while Bridges and Ayton added thirteen points apiece and a combined nineteen rebounds, with Johnson adding another eighteen points off the bench, knocking down 4-of-10 from long distance. Dario Saric (10.0 PTS, 75.0% FG, 66.7% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 1.0 AST, 1.0 STL, 24.6 PER), in his first action of the season after missing the first three games with a sore right quadriceps, added ten points and four rebounds in 14:16 off the bench, while Cameron Payne (9.8 PTS, 53.3% FG, 45.5% 3FG, 2.8 REB, 5.0 AST, 21.7 PER), who was out of the altogether last season until the Suns added him to their roster during the lockdown, chipped in with thirteen points and seven assists in a reserve role. The biggest difference between the two teams came from the perimeter, where New Orleans managed a dismal 3-of-24 shooting (12.5%) in comparison to 19-of-47 for Phoenix (40.4%), parlaying to a 48-point difference. Williams’ troops were also Plus-9 from the charity stripe, and manufactured eighteen turnovers in to twenty-one points. Next up is Utah, whom they split two meetings with last season, narrowly losing 96-95 in late October before hammering them 131-111 on February 24th in Salt Lake City, an affair in which Booker scored a team-high twenty-four points with ten assists to boot.
Meanwhile, trailing Phoenix by a single game in the standings out West are the Jazz (2-1, 4th in Western Conference), who appear poised for a fifth consecutive appearance in the Playoffs, though they undoubtedly hope for a longer stay after each of their last two trips ended in the First Round. Of course, last year’s elimination at the hands of the Denver Nuggets was a bitter pill to swallow, as Quin Snyder’s charges wasted a 3-1 lead in which their own Offense looked unstoppable, topping 120 points in each of the first four contests, only for their production to wane over the latter three chapters of the series en route to defeat. While displaying their lofty potential and shortcomings all at once, that particular matchup served as a microcosm for their season as a whole in 2019-20. In an attempt to get better on the offensive end of the court, Utah added (sharpshooting Forward) Bojan Bogdanovic (15.7 PTS, 34.0% FG, 40.0% 3FG, 5.3 REB, 1.3 AST, 10.6 PER), while acquiring (Point Guard) Mike Conley Jr. (19.3 PTS, 46.5% FG, 40.0% 3FG, 6.3 REB, 5.0 AST, 18.8 PER), with the latter expected to address their lingering issues at the point of attack. However, this offensive shift came at the expense of their stifling Defense, while Conley was rather slow to settle into the rotation. And then COIVD-19 struck, with Rudy Gobert (16.7 PTS, 75.0% FG, 14.7 REB, 2.7 AST, 1.7 BLK, 27.9 PER) the first player to officially test positive for the virus, leading to the indefinite postponement of play for the next four months. Prior to their return in the Bubble, Bogdanovic would injure his hand, ending his campaign altogether, while the team as a whole were terribly inconsistent in amassing a 3-5 record heading into the Playoffs. Looking to put that disappointment behind them, Snyder and (General Manager) Dennis Lindsey have looked to build upon what worked for them last year, namely their Offense, while shoring up the Defense. In regards to the former task, it’s really a matter of maintaining continuity for this unit grew as the campaign progressed; Bogdanovic’s shooting and rebounding proved to be a seamless fit before his injury, while Conley would eventually get more comfortable within his new surroundings with(All-Star Guard) Donovan Mitchell (20.3 PTS, 32.3% FG, 27.6% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 5.0 AST, 1.7 STL, 11.8 PER) taking his play to another level entirely. After posting career-highs in a slew of categories in this third season with the club, including points (24.0), field goal percentage (44.9%) three-point percentage (36.6%), rebounds (4.4), and assists (4.3), the 24-year old ventured into stardom for he was utterly sensational in the series against the Nuggets, averaging a whopping 36.3 points per game on 52.9% shooting from the field, including a blistering 51.6% from beyond the arc, along with 5.0 rebounds, 4.9 assists, and 1.0 steal over the course of that seven-game thriller. Defensively, Snyder and Lindsey doubled down on size, welcoming back (Center) Derrick Favors (7.0 PTS, 75.0% FG, 5.3 REB, 1.7 AST, 22.2 PER) after spending one season in New Orleans following a nine-year stint in Salt Lake City, drafting mammoth big man, Udoka Azubuike (27th Overall) in the 2020 NBA Draft, and of course resigning Gobert to a lucrative five-year/$205 million contract extension that should keep him in Utah for the foreseeable future (there is a Player Option in 2025-26). The aim here is to improve upon their slippage on the defensive end, where after their return from the lockdown they allowed 116.5 points on 49.4% shooting from the field, including 37.7% from downtown, and 24.3 assists, while getting narrowly outrebounded by 0.1 boards per game. Though it’s certainly been a small sample size thus far, Snyder must be more confident in his team’s defensive prowess, as they’ve allowed 108.3 points per game (8th Overall) on 43.7% shooting from the field (4th Overall), while owning the largest rebounding margin in the National Basketball Association (Plus-14.3).
When we last saw the Jazz, they bounced back from a narrow 116-111 defeat at home against the Minnesota Timberwolves, by outlasting the young Oklahoma City Thunder in a 110-109 victory that required some heroics in crunch time from Mitchell. Trailing 109-108 with juts seventeen seconds left on the clock, the All-Star grabbed the rebound following a missed three-pointer from Oklahoma City’s Geroge Hill, stopping the clock with a timeout. He would receive the inbound and eventually drive through the lane floating the go-ahead layup through the nylon with seven seconds left in the affair. The hosts would get a decent look on the ensuing possession but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander couldn’t sink the winner with time eventually running out. In the end, it was a much tougher matchup than the visitors probably thought they’d receive, but they nonetheless found a way to get the necessary stops down the stretch to fend off their opponent. Utah finished the night shooting a stellar 50.0% from the field, including 13-of-36 from downtown (36.1%), with three different players scoring at least twenty points, including Mitchell (20), Bogdanovic (23), and Conley (20), while (Guard) Jordan Clarkson (18.0 PTS, 48.7% FG, 41.2% 3FG, 4.7 REB, 1.0 AST, 23.5 PER) added sixteen points off the bench. It was a tough shooting night for Mitchell, who could muster just 8-of-23 shooting overall (34.8%), but to his credit he accounted for the most important two points in the game. Gobert totaled twelve points and ten rebounds (along with four assists and blocks apiece), logging the 250th double-double of his career, which stands as third on the franchise’s all-time list behind none other than Karl Malone (799) and John Stockton (714). The Thunder were able to hang around primarily due to their success from the perimeter, where they knocked down 15-of-38 three-pointers (39.5%), while turning seventeen turnovers into nineteen points. In the two meetings with the Suns last season, the Jazz managed to overcome poor shooting (38.0%) and twenty-three turnovers in a 96-95 victory on October 28th, thanks in large part to sixty-nine combined points from Bogdanovic, Mitchell, and Gobert (not to mention a Plus-16 advantage from the Free-Throw Line), while their defense completely collapsed in the second encounter, yielding 56.3% shooting from the field en route to getting outscored 69-49 in a 131-111 blowout in Salt Lake City in late February.