The Utah Jazz are dominating the NBA right now for two main reasons. First of all, they have a balanced offensive attack. Secondly, their defense has reached the level of the absurd.
For much of the year, Utah's offense consisted of rookie Donovan Mitchell as the primary scorer with others filling in the gaps as role players around him. That wasn't really successful for the team, though it did help with Rookie of the Year aspirations for Mitchell. However, during their 11-game winning streak -- which started in late January and ran through Valentine's Day -- they had several offensive leaders step up.
Ricky Rubio led the charge for awhile before getting injured. Joe Ingles took his turn as a 20-plus point scorer. Rudy Gobert, now healthy, re-established himself as a potential focal point on any given night. And, of course, Mitchell has continued to play well. Add in Jae Crowder, who has been revitalized in his sixth-man role since being traded over by the Cleveland Cavaliers, and you get a balanced Jazz attack that produced the following lines on Thursday against the Phoenix Suns:
Mitchell: 23 points (10-21 FG, 1-4 FT), 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 3-pointers, 1 steal, 1 block, 1 TO
Gobert: 21 points (8-11 FG, 5-6 FT), 13 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks, 1 steal
Ingles: 17 points (6-13 FG, 1-2 FT), 4 3-pointers, 3 assists, 2 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 TO
Crowder: 15 points (5-10 FG, 3-4 FT), 8 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 2 3-pointers
Rubio: 12 points (5-15 FG, 0-2 FT), 11 assists, 5 rebounds, 4 steals, 2 3-pointers, 1 TO
This sort of offensive equality has helped Utah's fantasy fortunes and allowed them play to perform better as an NBA team. However, there is a bigger reason for why the Jazz are currently on an eight-game winning streak with wins in 20 of their last 22 games. Namely, their defense is stifling.
The Jazz have not allowed any opponent to reach triple-digits during their last seven games, and have only allowed one 100-point effort in their last 16 contests. During those last seven games, opponents have averaged just 85.6 points per game against Utah in a season where the league average is 106.3 points per game.
Utah's defense has risen to the level where fantasy managers need to actively avoid players going up against them. Any player taking on the Jazz has a legitimate reason to be avoided -- almost regardless of the quality of the player. Take Thursday, when the starting lineup for the Suns scored only 45 total points on 16-47 shooting from the field.
Yes, the Jazz have found their offensive balance but, more importantly, their defense has found a 2004 Pistons kind of groove. This has vaulted them from the proud owners of multiple ping pong balls up to a playoff spot if the season ended today. You need to pay attention.
LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers: 35 points (15-25 FG, 4-9 FT), 14 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 blocks, 2 steals, 1 3-pointer, 6 TO
Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns: 12 points (3-18 FG, 5-5 FT), 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 3-pointer, 4 TO
Elfrid Payton, Phoenix Suns: 4 points (2-3 FG), 1 assist, 1 TO
Despite being edged out by teammate Joel Embiid for Philadelphia's line of the night, Ben Simmons produced his eight triple-double of his rookie season with 13 points (5-11 FG, 3-8 FT), 12 assists, 10 rebounds, 1 steal and 5 TO in the win over the Knicks. This achievement put Simmons in some very rarified air, as far as rookie PG accomplishments go:
With 13 points, 10 rebounds & 12 assists tonight against the Knicks, Ben Simmons breaks a tie with Magic Johnson for the second-most triple-doubles by a rookie in NBA history. (h/t @EliasSports) pic.twitter.com/LJdalTRDBl
- ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 16, 2018
Nicolas Batum was another triple-double performer on Thursday who got beat out by a teammate for top honors. Howard was a monster for the Hornets, but Batum did score 10 points (4-9 FG, 0-1 FT) with 16 assists, 10 rebounds, 2 3-pointers and 5 TO on the night.
Tyreke Evans returned from a 10-game absence with a bang on Thursday, scoring 25 points (8-18 FG, 4-5 FT) with 9 assists, 5 rebounds, 5 3-pointers, 2 steals and 3 TO in 33 minutes of action for Memphis. He immediately resumed the role of primary offense producer for the Grizzlies and, barring injury, seems likely to remain in that role for the rest of the season.
The San Antonio Spurs somehow continue to keep winning just enough to stay in the playoff race out West, despite the continued absence of Kawhi Leonard. They're doing so by playing like old men at the park in a pick-up game -- fundamentally sound, making smart plays, and doing "old man tricks" that the opponent isn't ready for. One particular example of this happened last night in their close win over the New Orleans Pelicans, where Anthony Davis got "old-manned" by Manu Ginobili. The 40-year old Ginobili showed he still had some life in his legs by sneaking up behind Davis to shockingly block his shot. Then, as Davis thought he had an open path to the rim, Ginobili popped out of nowhere to take the charge. Next, while Davis was jogging back to play defense, Ginobili dribbled the ball up the court, cut directly in front of Davis and just stopped. In a play that Sam Cassell made famous, Davis was unable to stop his momentum and ran into Ginobili, who promptly fell to the ground and drew the foul call. Those two quick fouls that Ginobili drew helped get Davis into foul trouble, and he eventually went on to foul out and, thus, was not a factor at the tail end of a close game.
Injuries of note
Myles Turner left Thursday's game with an ankle injury, returned briefly and then re-injured the ankle. He is questionable to play in Indiana's next game. With Domantas Sabonis already out through the weekend with an ankle injury of his own, a Turner absence would likely lead to more minutes for Al Jefferson, Trevor Booker and/or T.J. Leaf.
Denver's Gary Harris injured his right knee on Thursday and left the game. He has an MRI scheduled on Friday to determine the severity of the injury. Consider him questionable for now, pending the results of the MRI.
Kris Dunn of the Bulls sprained his toe at the end of Thursday's win over the Memphis Grizzlies. His post-game X-rays came back negative, but he is questionable to play on Saturday against the Cavaliers. If he can't go, Cameron Payne and Jerian Grant are the likely candidates to get more minutes.
Tyson Chandler sat out Thursday with an "undisclosed" ailment, and Alex Len got the spot start for Phoenix. It is unclear whether or not Chandler will return for Saturday's game against the Golden State Warriors.
Analytics advantage for Friday
The number for the day is 475. That's how many combined points the Oklahoma City Thunder and LA Clippers produced in their two prior meetings this season. Split evenly, that translates to an average of 118.8 points per game, per team. Considering that the No. 1-scoring team in the NBA this season has averaged 115.7 points per game, along with the fact the Clippers and Thunder are battling for playoff position, this game shapes up to be one that will produce fireworks. Paul George is questionable with a groin injury, and if he's limited/out then Russell Westbrook and maybe Carmelo Anthony could be looking at even more production than usual.
Top players to watch tonight
The Warriors, Miami Heat, and Boston Celtics are all dealing with injuries to multiple primary players, and all three face lottery-bound opponents with lax defense on Friday. This suggests potentially big games from players like Goran Dragic, James Johnson, Kevin Durant (if he plays), Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum, and/or any of the many other rotation players that may step up for the absentees.