This time last year, the Miami Heat had, improbably, just ripped off 13 wins in a row. Despite entering the new year a paltry 10-24, and seemingly destined for the draft lottery, the Heat’s big streak completely rewrote their future. Miami went 29-11 over its final 40 games, and while it failed to crack the playoff field, it changed the perception of what a starless group could do in the right system.
Now it’s Utah’s turn. The Jazz entered January five games under .500. But they held on to a 101-99 victory over the Spurs on Monday to earn their 10th straight victory. The fourth quarter may have felt particularly familiar to Miami fans. The Jazz’s crunch-time lineup included Donovan Mitchell (a 21-year-old rookie), Joe Ingles (a 30-year-old from Australia), Royce O’Neale (an undrafted free agent), Jae Crowder (a Cavalier two games ago), and Derrick Favors (who was on the trade block last week). Utah was down by 13 at one point in the fourth, but Favors and Mitchell combined for 21 points and brought the Jazz back.
It’s like head coach Quin Snyder is playing with a jigsaw puzzle and every piece he throws into the mix fits just right. The Jazz are now 29-28, a game behind the ninth-place Clippers, a game and a half behind the eighth-place Pelicans, and three games behind the fifth-place Thunder.
The Jazz’s revival begins with Mitchell. Twenty points a night has become almost a guarantee. Indeed, Mitchell has already scored 20 or more points 27 times in 54 games this season, including a pair of 40-point outings. Per 36 minutes, Mitchell is averaging 30.7 points on a 59.1 true shooting percentage in fourth quarters alone.
It can’t be stressed enough how incredible it is that Mitchell, the 13th overall pick in the 2017 draft, is the Jazz’s go-to crunch-time scorer and leading scorer during their recent streak. With his long strides to the hoop (and length on defense, which has helped produce 1.5 steals a game), aggressive dunks, a quick dribble, and a smooth shot, it’s easy to see why he’s already a reliable offensive player. He’s the difference-maker Rudy Gobert can’t always be because he doesn’t have the ball in his hands as much.
Donovan Mitchell's best buckets from the @utahjazz's game winning streak!— NBA (@NBA) February 13, 2018
@spidadmitchell is the first rookie to lead his team in total points & PPG during a 10 game winning streak since Wilt Chamberlain on the '59-60 Warriors!#TakeNote #NBARooks pic.twitter.com/ShjVLooK6h
Mitchell isn’t exactly elevating everyone else on the Jazz like a superstar would, but when he’s playing headstrong and hitting shots, it opens up the floor for Utah’s role players to perform above their pay grade.
Enter Joe Ingles. To say Ingles has been on fire lately would be an understatement. Ingles is shooting 58 percent from the floor, 57 percent from 3, and 100 percent from the free throw line during Utah’s 10-game winning streak, and scoring 16.2 points per game. He’s playing like Dion Waiters went away to the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference for a weekend.
Adding Crowder, at the expense of Rodney Hood, at the deadline is so far proving to be a wise buy-low move. Crowder, like Ingles, brings just the right amount of ancillary scoring alongside Mitchell and Gobert to help make up what the Jazz lost this offseason from Gordon Hayward. Crowder has scored 15 and 14 points in his first two games with Utah. Those are also two of his 11 highest scoring performances this season.
“I got back to having fun playing basketball with a great group of guys,” Crowder said after his first game. “I love playing within a system. It’ll be fun.”
It’s probably especially enjoyable to play perimeter defense knowing you have a 7-foot force behind you.
Utah is six points per 100 possessions better on defense when Gobert is on the court, the best of any big man on the Jazz. The fit between Gobert and Favors, two traditional centers, is an outlier in today’s NBA. But the two have meshed well since Gobert returned on January 19. When the two are on the floor, the Jazz have a 2.8 net rating. Gobert even stepped aside in crunch time and ceded the floor to a red-hot Favors.
O’Neale has also capably stepped into a starting role vacated by Ricky Rubio, whose own recent surge was halted two games ago by a hip injury. O’Neale, a 3-and-D wing who plied his trade overseas for two years before joining Utah this season, has been an immediate success with the starters: he’s a combined plus-36 over the past two games, and can play some defense, too.
Utah’s upswing has been season-altering, but it wasn’t too long ago that the Jazz lost against the Knicks, Hawks, and Hornets. That the Jazz aren’t currently in the playoff field after a streak of this magnitude could be cause for concern once the inevitable regression hits. But they weren’t as far behind as the Heat were at this point last season, and they also have Mitchell.