Regular season NBA basketball is one of the most unpredictable sports known to man. Without warning, a juggernaut team like the Bucks can drop a game by 20 points to the Knicks (it happened on December 27!). But nobody really bats an eye. It was just their third game of the season, and they had crushed the Warriors on Christmas Day, 138-99. But this isn't a tale about dominant teams; this is about the Utah Jazz and their eight-game win streak.
The Jazz began the season 4-4, with two losses at the hands of the Timberwolves and Knicks, two of the worst teams in the league last season. Since then, they've won eight straight by an average margin of 16 points. What's gotten into the Jazz lately?
The most obvious improvement during Utah's streak has been Donovan Mitchell's efficiency. Though he mainly plays off the ball, Mitchell is their primary source of offensive production. The star guard shot just 37.8% from the field and 32.9% from 3-point range during Utah's first eight games. He was averaging 21.3 points per game, but any Jazz fan could tell you that Mitchell wasn't living up to his fullest potential. Flash forward to their last eight games, and Mitchell is averaging 27.3 points per game, shooting 51.6% from the field and 49.4% from deep. Despite Shaquille O'Neal's pessimistic and unwarranted comments in a postgame interview after Thursday's win against the Pelicans, Mitchell does have what it takes to "get to the next level."
Mitchell isn't the only one upping his game as the season has progressed. Bojan Bogdanovic is slowly regaining his touch from deep after a slow start (26.5% in Utah's first eight vs. 39.1% during their streak). Bogdanovic's lack of confidence early has been concerning, especially after he averaged a career-high 20.2 points per game last year on 41.4% from 3-point range. He did have wrist surgery in May and has experimented with a brace and different configurations of medical tape as of late. As the season progresses, the career 39.3% 3-point shooter should only get more and more comfortable.
Off the bench, guard Jordan Clarkson is the early favorite for Sixth Man of the Year. He is simply shooting the lights out: his 17.4 points per game, 48.6% from the field, 40.9% from 3, and 96.0% from the free throw line are all career highs. The man is doing what he does best: scoring from anywhere and everywhere. Still, the definition of "anywhere" is evolving for Clarkson. In the 2018-19 season, 37.7% of his field goal attempts came from behind the arc. That figure grew to 47.6% last season and to an astounding 52.3% this season. Clarkson is bound for some regression in his percentages, but his scoring averages will likely stay just where they are.
I haven't yet mentioned the highest-paid player on the Jazz, center Rudy Gobert. After inking a 5-year, $205 million extension over the offseason, Gobert is making his typically unspectacular – yet unbelievably important – impact. This season, the French 7-footer is averaging 12.1 points, 13.5 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks per game (second in the league). His influence doesn't just reach to the basic stats; Gobert is second in the league with 6.8 screen assists per game. Screen assists are screens set that lead directly to a made field goal by a teammate, so in other words, Gobert's big frame is setting his team up for open looks.
Between Gobert's blocks and Mike Conley's 1.6 steals per game, the Jazz are allowing the third fewest points per game this season (106.1). They're forcing low probability shots, as seen by their opponents' eFG% of 50%. Utah also leads the league in opponent free throw rate with 14.1 per 100 possessions, so it's clear they're capable of guarding both effectively and cleanly.
The Jazz are a beautiful sum of their parts; they sport a balance between efficient offense and stifling defense. Nonetheless, it's worth noting that they won ten games in a row last season and still finished sixth in the Western Conference. They allowed the ninth fewest points per game last season, too. These stats all sound eerily similar to right now.
It seems that every year, Jazz fans get their hopes up for the playoffs after a solid season. They haven't made it past the Conference Semifinals since 2007. These last eight games have certainly boosted Utah's morale after a lackluster start to the shortened season. But will there be many consistent trends to convince the league that they're ready to make a deep playoff run? They'll have to prove it after this streak comes to an end.