Why I believe the Jazz will make the play-in tournament, and maybe more

Utah Jazz forward Kelly Olynyk high-fives teammate Ochai Agbaji as Sacramento guard De’Aaron Fox walks away after the Jazz beat the Kings at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on March 20, 2023.
Utah Jazz forward Kelly Olynyk high-fives teammate Ochai Agbaji as Sacramento guard De’Aaron Fox walks away after the Jazz beat the Kings at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on March 20, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News
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During the Utah Jazz’s recent six-game road trip, the other beat reporters and I would finish our writing and end up staying in the arena media rooms late into the night, looking through the rest of the schedule and trying to figure out how many wins and losses the Jazz are going to end the season with.

“Expect the unexpected. It’s not easy to go into a season where everybody is telling you that you’re not very good.” — Utah Jazz coach Will Hardy

Those conversations naturally led to us surveying the rest of the teams at the bottom of the playoff picture in the Western Conference and their respective schedules, trying to arrive at a definitive answer to this question: Are the Jazz going to be in the play-in tournament?

As we did this exercise each night, logic and sound reason told us that the Jazz had a really tough schedule in the final stretch of the season and the other teams fighting for a spot might have an easier road to wins. The Jazz should probably be knocked out of play-in contention.

The problem is that despite any logical, statistical or reasonable rationale, I kept saying the same thing to my fellow Jazz beat reporters — “They shouldn’t make it. But they’re going to. This Jazz team is weird and they do things they aren’t supposed to be able to do.”

The most convincing piece of evidence from that road trip that supported my claim came in Charlotte on March 11 (kind of a famous Jazz basketball date now, so my coincidence-loving conspiracy brain was convinced even more by this), when the Jazz’s best player, Lauri Markkanen, had an abysmal shooting night, going 3 of 22 from the field. Surely that would result in a Jazz loss, right?

Nope.

Despite hitting just three shots all night, Markkanen still finished with a 13-point, 13-rebound double-double and Talen Horton-Tucker picked up all of the offensive slack, scoring a whopping 37 points with 10 assists and eight rebounds in a win over the Hornets.

Then the Jazz returned home from their long trip and that tough stretch of the schedule stood in front of them. So what did the Jazz do? They beat the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 Boston Celtics and then turned around two days later to beat the Western Conference’s No. 2 Sacramento Kings, and that time they did it without Markkanen even playing against the Kings (taking the night off because of a sore back).

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This Jazz team has already won more games than they “should” have to finish out the final stretch of the season.

The schedule isn’t going to get any easier. All of the websites that predict where NBA teams will finish the season and all of the oddsmakers of the world will have you believing that the Jazz’s chances are slim, and I get it. As I write this, the Jazz have 11 games left in the season and nine of those games are against teams that are still fighting for a playoff spot or fighting to maintain their spot. And yet …

I can’t help but think back to the beginning of the season. A rookie head coach and 14 new players — most of whom had never played with one another. This wasn’t just about folding in a couple of new guys. It would have been completely understandable if the Jazz spent the entirety of the 2022-23 season just kind of getting to know each other and creating some semblance of chemistry.

But the Jazz started out the season with three straight wins, two of them in overtime, and the first win of the season over the West-leading Denver Nuggets — a game where Collin Sexton stamped his foot like a bull ready to take off and got the step on two-time MVP Nikola Jokic in the final moments. They went on to go 10-3 in the first 13 games of the season, absolutely annihilating anyone’s expectations of how they were going to start the year.

Let’s be honest about that hot start — it didn’t make any sense. These guys barely knew each other! The front office had just traded away two of the best players to have ever worn a Jazz uniform. Half the roster was made up of players who had less than four years of NBA experience.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, figured that the Jazz would fizzle out, and midseason trades solidified that belief. But, time and time again, this plucky Jazz team has done just enough that it can’t be counted out.

It doesn’t matter if it’s been Horton-Tucker in an experimental point guard role, rookies Walker Kessler and Ochai Agbaji defying and outpacing expectations, Markkanen becoming an All-Star and potentially All-NBA player, Jordan Clarkson becoming a trusted facilitator, or Kris Dunn breathing life back into his NBA career — no matter what, this Jazz team has not done what anyone thought it would.

“Expect the unexpected,” Hardy said of his team. “It’s not easy to go into a season where everybody is telling you that you’re not very good. There’s obviously rough patches at points in the season — you lose four in a row, dip a certain number of games below .500 And everybody says, ‘Oh, there it is. It’s over.’ And that’s natural. That’s not anybody’s fault, it’s just the way that it works. And they haven’t backed off one bit. They haven’t given in, ever.”

Maybe we should have paid more attention to the signs. Maybe we should be paying attention to the signs now.

There might be people out there who still don’t think that the Jazz are going to be able to make the play-in, much less the playoffs. But outside belief in this team has clearly not mattered to these guys.

They are going to fight and scratch and claw and run and jump and dunk and block until the absolute final seconds of the season tick away. I wouldn’t bet against them. It might not make sense, but that’s who this Jazz team is. It is a weird, chaotic team, and just might shock us all.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News