Any coach, Quin Snyder included, will tell you ball-watching is one of their most hated basketball sins.
Players who watch shots go up instead of getting back on defense are inevitably bound to give up the next big play. You focus, Snyder said, on what you can control.
It’s the same advice he gives to the Jazz (37-30) locker room, which is on a stretch as hot as any team in the NBA right now and yet are still — still — looking on from the back of a crowded Western Conference playoff pack.
“What we’re doing, we want to keep doing,” Snyder said following Sunday’s win over the New Orleans Pelicans, the team’s 18th win in its last 20 games. “We don’t need to be comparing ourselves to anybody.”
But at the same time, isn’t it hard not to?
It may feel like the Jazz, winners of six straight games, aren’t actually making progress. That’s a credit to just how competitive the West has been. After Monday night’s action, only four games separated the No. 3 Portland Trail Blazers and a virtual four-way tie for No. 7 between the Los Angeles Clippers, Jazz, Denver Nuggets and San Antonio Spurs. Of the eight teams in that bunch, six have gone 6-4 or better in their last 10 games.
That’s a lot of winning, and even the Jazz, who are only matched by one-seed Houston in their record over the last 20 games, haven’t been able to inch past any other contenders in the field.
But several analytic measurements put Utah’s odds as improving: The stat site FiveThirtyEight gives the Jazz a 92 percent chance of making the playoffs, the fourth-best odds in the West. Metrics at Basketball Reference (79.4 percent) and ESPN’s BPI (82.8 percent) also favor Utah’s playoff push.
Much of that has to do with just how well Utah has played with a fully healthy Rudy Gobert. Since the Jazz turnaround began with a Jan. 24 overtime win in Detroit, Utah has been by far the NBA’s best team in defensive rating: Per 100 possessions, the Jazz are allowing just 95.8 points (by comparison, second-place Toronto is allowing 101.6). In net rating (for the layman: offensive rating minus defensive rating), the Jazz have been third behind the Raptors and Rockets over the last 20 games.
But much of that also has to do with schedule: The Jazz have just seven of their final 15 games against teams with winning records. Four of their next five are against teams — Phoenix, Sacramento, Atlanta and Dallas — that most consider to be actively tanking. In the crowded section of the West, only Minnesota has single-digit games against winning teams remaining. The rest of the pack looks likely to beat up on one another, and notably, Denver still has a seven-game road trip remaining.
So yes, in a way for the Jazz, winning actually could take care of itself. While a road-heavy December and January were brutal (the Jazz were 11-17), the fact that the toughest stretches of schedule are behind them could be a huge benefit in the end.
“We had injuries and we lost a few games we shouldn’t have earlier in the season, but it motivates us even more,” Gobert said. “We don’t take anything for granted. … Every night is a challenge, and that’s what we’ve been doing so far.”
That may read like classic athlete cliche-speak, but something real has transformed in the Jazz locker room. The fabric of the team seems tighter, the banter flowing more freely. And it’s hard to know exactly whether the results — such as Utah’s 11 straight road wins after starting out the season 5-19 — are the product of the chemistry or visa versa.
The Jazz aren’t ball-watching, even as the playoff race tightens. While there’s a strong belief in the locker room that the Jazz will return to the playoffs, winning has created a lightness in the air that has cast out any dread or nerves about how they’ll measure up in the standings.
“Winning feels good: You don’t need another reward,” Ricky Rubio said. “It’s a win, you go home and you feel good about yourself and feel you did a good job. That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
Here is a list of the teams in the Western Conference playoff races and the games they have remaining against opponents with winning records:
Portland Trail Blazers (41-26) • 11 — Cavaliers, Clippers (twice), Rockets (twice), Celtics, Thunder, Pelicans, Spurs, Nuggets, Jazz
New Orleans Pelicans (38-28) • 11 — Spurs (twice), Rockets (twice), Celtics, Pacers, Trail Blazers, Cavaliers, Thunder, Warriors, Clippers
Minnesota Timberwolves (39-29) • 8 — Wizards, Spurs, Rockets, Clippers, 76ers, Jazz, Nuggets (twice)
Oklahoma City Thunder (40-29) • 11 — Clippers, Raptors, Celtics, Heat (twice), Trail Blazers, Spurs, Pelicans, Nuggets, Warriors, Rockets
Los Angeles Clippers (36-29) • 14 — Rockets, Thunder, Trail Blazers (twice), Timberwolves, Bucks (twice), Pacers (twice), Raptors, Spurs, Jazz, Nuggets, Pelicans
Utah Jazz (37-30) • 7 — Spurs, Warriors (twice), Celtics, Timberwolves, Clippers, Trail Blazers
Denver Nuggets (37-30) • 11 — Heat, Wizards, 76ers, Raptors, Thunder, Bucks, Pacers, Timberwolves (twice), Clippers, Trail Blazers
San Antonio Spurs (37-30) • 12 — Rockets (twice), Pelicans (twice), Timberwolves, Warriors, Wizards, Jazz, Bucks, Wizards, Thunder, Clippers, Trail Blazers
PISTONS AT JAZZ
At Vivint Smart Home Arena
Tipoff • Tuesday, 7 p.m.
TV • ATTSN
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 37-30, Pistons 30-36
Last meeting • Jazz 98, Pistons 95 OT (Jan. 24)
About the Pistons • Since being traded to Detroit, Blake Griffin has averaged 20.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists in 17 games. … The Pistons are just 2-7 since the All-Star break after going 6-3 just before the break. … No. 12 overall draft pick Luke Kennard is averaging 6.5 points and 2.1 rebounds per game while shooting 41.6 percent from 3-point range.
About the Jazz • Starting with a win at Detroit, Utah has won 18 of its last 20 games, which is tied with the Houston Rockets for the league’s best record over that span. … With 169 3-pointers this season, Joe Ingles is just nine away from tying the Jazz season mark set by Randy Foye in the 2011-12 season. … In his last 17 games, Ricky Rubio is averaging 16.1 points, 6.7 assists and 5.8 rebounds while shooting 42 percent from 3-point range.