The Utah Jazz are the first NBA team into the Conference Finals. Please allow me a moment to savor that.
Thank you, and please excuse me. I really don’t want to get too carried away with “Jazz Fever,” but it’s nice to enjoy that once-forgotten emotion. It’s safe to say the Jazz have exceeded all my expectations this season, and I’m finding it increasingly difficult to maintain my standard attitude of guarded pessimism. I will freely admit to predicting a first round exit for Utah, and suspecting a second round loss, as well. Now that they made it to the Western Conference Finals, “Jazz Fever” has infected me and I am positively giddy with optimism. Of course, the next series is the one they are most likely to lose.
Still, I think I will be okay with a loss. To be one of the last two teams still alive in the exceptionally difficult Western Conference is a feather in any team’s cap. Consider the bottom three teams in the Conference: the Los Angeles Lakers (with arguably the best player in the NBA), the Denver Nuggets (with the Defensive Player of the Year, and two legitimate MVP candidates) and the Golden State Warriors (the best team in the NBA over the last three weeks of the season). NBA writers and talking heads are making frequent use of the phrase “playing with the house money” to describe how they think the Jazz should approach this next series. While I find it amusing to hear everyone gravitate toward that one expression, I can’t disagree with the concept. They have already done more than anyone really expected them to, and they have nothing to lose.
That could make the Utah Jazz more dangerous, but is likely to make them mistake-prone, I believe. If Jerry Sloan decides to stray from the formula that got them here just so the Jazz can “play with the house money,” I don’t see them being much of a threat to either San Antonio or Phoenix. Perhaps a better interpretation of the concept would be: “We, the national media who have not paid attention to the Utah Jazz all season long, have no real idea how good this team can be. Therefore they cannot possibly pose a threat to the favorites in the race, and so they have nothing to lose. It’s been a nice season for an up-and-coming team, and they might as well go out and play hard, because it doesn’t really matter anyway.”
My interpretation (and I’m thoroughly under the influence of Jazz Fever, here) is that the Jazz have a good shot against either team. I can’t bring myself to predict a victory – old habits die hard – but it wouldn’t surprise me. Nothing to lose? Of course the Jazz have something to lose! They are eight wins away from the first NBA Championship in franchise history!!! Just because they are an unlikely conference finalist doesn’t mean they shouldn’t take advantage of the opportunities presented. Don’t get me wrong, it would be a very difficult road through San Antonio and Detroit (not certain, of course, but in all likelihood), but why not fight for it, at least? The Utah Jazz won two of four from San Antonio and three of four from Phoenix this season (and two of two from Detroit), so it’s not as if the Jazz have been outclassed. I know the playoffs are a different story, but the Jazz might be playing their best basketball of the season.
So I don’t think the Jazz should be content to just “play with the house money” and act like they have nothing to lose. I think when they step onto the court to start the next series they need to see themselves as legitimate title contenders. If the Jazz should lose in seven games then they will have played hard and simply lost to superior talent. But if the series is over in four or five games then they will have let something besides basketball decide the outcome.
And if they play as hard as they can, keep their wits about them, and get a few lucky bounces? Then the Fever may be carrying over into another round of the playoffs.
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