Pop quiz, hotshot: who’s got the longest winning streak in the NBA? Nope, it’s not James Harden, Chris Paul and the hard-charging Houston Rockets. (They’re second, with eight straight victories.) Nor is it Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and the Eastern Conference-leading Toronto Raptors. (They’re third, with five in a row.) No, the hottest team in the NBA resides on the Wasatch Front.
The Utah Jazz — a team that seemed unlikely to compete after losing All-Star forward Gordon Hayward and starting point guard George Hill in free agency, and that bounced back from an injury to literal centerpiece Rudy Gobert with a hot streak only to lose 15 of their next 20 — have found their form again. Quin Snyder’s club has now ripped off 10 in a row, reaching double figures in thrilling fashion with Monday’s come-from-behind 101-99 victory over the visiting San Antonio Spurs, capped by a damn good closing kick from rookie Donovan Mitchell:
After struggling with his shot and scuffling through three quarters, the Louisville product turned it on late. Mitchell scored 13 of his 25 points in the fourth as the Jazz erased a 13-point San Antonio lead in just under nine minutes, punctuating the roaring comeback by picking Kyle Anderson’s pocket for a driving layup to give the Jazz a 98-97 lead with 59 ticks left. And after the Spurs went back in front on a pair of Anderson free throws, the 21-year-old dribbled into the frontcourt, took a high screen from Derrick Favors, drove right at a backpedaling Pau Gasol and calmly pulled up for an elbow jumper that splashed through to put Utah back on top with 38.2 seconds remaining.
A couple of defensive stops later — thanks to dogged perimeter work from Royce O’Neale, Utah’s “other” rookie, an undrafted swingman out of Baylor-by-way-of-Spain whose steady two-way play might have helped punch Rodney Hood’s ticket out of Salt Lake City — and the Jazz had their 10th straight W, putting them back over .500 for the first time since Dec. 5.
It wasn’t a beautiful game — Mitchell finished 9-for-28 from the field, and Utah shot just 42 percent as a team — and it carries with it the caveat of coming against a Spurs team without not only still-injured superstar Kawhi Leonard and top reserve Rudy Gay, but also All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who’ll be sidelined through the All-Star break as he receives treatment on “his chronically sore right knee.” But you can only play the team that’s in front of you, and on the second night of a back-to-back after winning in Portland on Sunday, the Jazz managed to battle through what looked to be dead legs in the third quarter, without starting point guard Ricky Rubio, to author a 13-point comeback and snatch victory from the jaws of what seemed like certain defeat:
Down by 12 with 8:36 left in the 4th quarter, the Jazz had a 7% win expectancy, per @inpredict. They mounted an incredible comeback to win their 10th straight — on a back-to-back, no less. https://t.co/OzYBcd6YCc pic.twitter.com/HUJqO4nluC
It was the moment in miniature, a run distilled. Facing defeat, the combination of aggressive defense, flashes of brilliance from Mitchell, timely play from dependable veterans (the Joe Ingles-Derrick Favors pick-and-roll, which carved the Spurs up down the stretch) and smart decision-making by Snyder (leaving Gobert on the bench for the final six-plus minutes, with the Stifle Tower’s blessing, and continuing to ride the Favors-at-center lineup that fueled the game-winning burst) changed the Jazz’s fortunes. Ten wins in 2 1/2 weeks have had the same effect on Utah’s postseason outlook:
Your mileage may vary when it comes to projection systems like the one FiveThirtyEight uses, but by their reckoning, only the Rockets, Spurs, Golden State Warriors, Minnesota Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder have a higher likelihood of cracking the top eight among Western teams … despite the fact that Utah enters Tuesday’s play in 10th place in the varsity conference.