When you have teams with superstars like the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers, not to mention a team like the Denver Nuggets with super-center Nikola Jokic, you would have figured you'd have the top three teams in the Western Conference right there.
Well, that hasn't been the case. The Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns have been the class of this conference, and one of them is likely to have the home court advantage through that side of the playoff bracket. In fact, these are the teams with the two best records in the entire league.
The Jazz just had their nine-game winning streak broken by the Dallas Mavericks (111-103) and now they run into a Phoenix team that has won its last five games at home, as well as nine of its last ten games.
So neither team is showing any signs of fading.
At 38-12, Utah holds a 2.5-game lead over the Suns (35-14). And the Jazz have been sizzling against the spread (31-18-1 ATS). But so has Phoenix (31-17-1 ATS).
Ten of Utah's 12 losses have come on the road.
The Suns went to Salt Lake City and took Utah down 106-95 on New Year's Eve, this despite the efforts of Rudy Gobert, who had 16 points and 14 rebounds. Phoenix had balance with six players in double digits, led by Devin Booker's 25.
The Jazz are often identified with defense because of the presence of Gobert, the French native who is referred to by several nicknames, including "The Stifle Tower."
The reality is that this team is #1 in the NBA in Offensive Rating. And after years of operating about as slowly as molasses, the Jazz are 18th in the league in the "Pace" category.
The Suns are the team playing with a much more deliberate pace these days - ranking 26th in that category. And that isn't a big surprise under coach Monty Williams. What might be a big surprise, however, is that they are 5th in the NBA in Defensive Rating. That is part of the "culture" Chris Paul brings to the table. Paul is averaging 8.8 assists, with a 4-to-1 ratio to turnovers.
If you wanted to put this Utah season in a nutshell, you could say that the gains through the three-point shot have been tremendous. First of all, they are shooting FIFTY-ONE percentage points higher than their opponents from beyond the arc (.395 to .344). And they have outscored their foes by an average of 19.2 points per game from three-point range.
There's a lot of dangerous shooters. Donovan Mitchell, who leads the team at 25.4 points per game, is just below 40% from downtown. Bojan Bogdanovic is 39%. Joe Ingles, who has long had a reputation as a long-range sharpshooter, is second in the NBA at 50%. Mike Conley, who finally made it onto the All-Star team, has hit 42.1% triples, and as the point guard he is greatly responsible for stepping up the tempo.
So this is a team that is very difficult to defend.
Yet in the first meeting, Utah had limited success shooting the ball, making just 12 of 34 from three-point territory. Meanwhile, Phoenix blitzed them with 17 treys in 33 attempts (51.5%).
It's perhaps useful to point out that the previous meeting came in the midst of a period in which Utah got off to a choppy start, losing four of its first eight games.
It may seem logical to look at this as a "value" play on the Suns, grabbing points at home (where they are 18-8 straight-up). But we're going to see some extra focus from this Utah crew, and we're not expecting a repeat of their previous poor performance from three-point range. The Jazz pounds out a winning tune and gets some payback.
Charles Jay is unlike most analysts associated with
handicapping and the gaming industry, in that he also has had extensive
experience in the so-called "mainstream" media as well.
He has been involved with professional sports industry for
almost two decades, working in all capacities, as a matchmaker, booking agent,
manager, and also as an editorial consultant on USA Network's "Tuesday Night
Fights," which, for a time, carried "Charles Jay's Line" on
upcoming fights. As a broadcaster, he has called world title fights around the
world for various outlets, and has served as a color commentator for Sunshine
Network and Prime Network.
His radio experience includes being the host of numerous
programs, including "Sportswatch with Charles Jay" on KDWN in Las
Vegas, "Total Action" on WAXY 790 in Miami, and "Charles Jay's
Winning Edge", syndicated into 55 markets by the American Radio Networks,
and he's done podcasts on all subjects related to sports, gaming and popular
Working within the casino industry, he has a special events
consultant for Casino Magic in Mississippi, as that venue established itself in
the early 1990s as a hotbed of boxing activity in particular. Prior to this, he
had been engaged as a casino gaming columnist for, among others, Casino Player,
Card Player and Sports Form (now known as Gaming Today), specializing in
blackjack. And later on, his investigative series on boxing, entitled
"Operation Cleanup," won him much critical acclaim, including the
2003 "Dignity" Award, in the category of "Best Sports
Writer," as bestowed by the Retired Boxers Foundation, a non-profit
organization dedicated to rendering assistance to ex-fighters in need.
In 2006 he established a content services division of his
company, which has eventually evolved in JayWords, and he is arguably the
world's most prolific sports & gaming writer, with over 20,000 articles to
his credit, the vast majority of which have been sports handicapping pieces. So
you might say he has analyzed as many sporting events as anyone alive during
this period. He has also brought some interest with his so-called
"gimmick" odds on special events, including the Academy Awards, the
NFL Draft, and the Super Bowl, for which he posted dozens and dozens of
different odds propositions with various sportsbooks.
This renaissance man is a winner of the Retired Boxers Foundation's "Dignity Award" and a member of the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame; graduate of the University of
Miami (Florida) who currently resides in the South Florida area.