What seemed improbable heading into the season for the Utah Jazz and even less likely after they traded three more key players in February appears to be within reach.
The Jazz, however, have another big hurdle in their way of earning a spot in the postseason: their schedule.
Beginning Saturday night against Boston at home in Salt Lake City, the Jazz have the most difficult schedule remaining in the NBA. Utah’s strength of schedule (winning percentage of opponents) for its final 13 games is a league-high .556.
That difficult final stretch for the Jazz (33-36) includes a home-and-away set vs. the Celtics (49-22), two games against the Sacramento Kings (42-27), and matchups with the Milwaukee Bucks (50-20), Phoenix Suns (38-32), Denver Nuggets (47-23) and Brooklyn Nets (39-31).
Utah enters Saturday’s contest tied with the Los Angeles Lakers for the 10th position in the Western Conference, which is the last of the four play-in spots. The Jazz are two games out of the final assured playoff berth.
While their player transactions and acquisition of abundant first-round draft picks have the Jazz linked with tanking accusations, it’s been clear that Utah coach Will Hardy and his crew are out to win games.
“Hope is a good motivator,” Hardy said. “No one’s really out of it right now at this point in the Western Conference.”
Two teams have been eliminated in the West — the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs — and Denver is sitting in the No. 1 spot. The Jazz, however, are only 4 1/2 games from being a No. 4 seed and are just 2 1/2 games ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers, who occupy the 13th spot in the conference.
“We’ve got as good a shot as anyone,” Jazz forward Kelly Olynyk said. “Everyone is pretty bunched up there. We’ve got to string together a few wins, keep taking a step forward and playing good basketball and letting the chips fall where they may.”
The Celtics, on the other hand, are eyeing the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. They are 1 1/2 games behind Milwaukee for the top record in the East and the NBA.
The Philadelphia 76ers are just one game behind the Celtics at 47-22.
Boston did its part late Friday night, outlasting Portland 126-112 on the road. Jayson Tatum led the way with 34 points and 12 rebounds, and Jaylen Brown scored 27 points.
“I just felt like we had that competitive nature again,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said.
Al Horford, who collected 12 points and 10 assists against the Blazers, told reporters that the Celtics’ coach “challenged us here to be better as a group, be more focused and really get back to who we are. The group has. We’ve responded.”
While this will be Boston’s third road game in four nights, the Jazz should be rested after most recently competing on Monday. Utah will be playing at home for the first time since returning from a six-game trip, which ended with a 119-115 loss at the Miami Heat.