SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Utah Jazz are one game out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference race and 1 1/2 out of the No. 6 spot despite being ravaged by injuries throughout the season.
They’d been lucky in one regard: leading scorer Gordon Hayward (20.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.7 assists per game) hadn’t missed a game to injury all season, but that ended this week. Hayward has missed two straight with plantar fasciitis in his right foot and there is no timetable for his return.
Utah, however, won both games without Hayward.
The Jazz have now been without starting point guard Dante Exum for the entire year after ACL surgery on his left knee.
Starting center Rudy Gobert, who finished fifth in defensive player of the year voting last season, missed 20 games because of injury, including 17 to an MCL sprain in his left knee.
Power forward Derrick Favors (17.0 points, 8.5 rebounds per game) missed 16 games due to a back and hip issue.
Sixth man Alec Burks (14.3 points per game) has missed 40 games with a broken left fibula.
And now Hayward is out with a foot injury that has shelved some players for a significant amount of time.
The Jazz have had players miss 152 games combined due to injury or illness, the ninth most in the NBA, according to STATS.
Coach Quin Snyder said he wouldn’t have predicted such success before the season had he known what was on the horizon.
“I thought there’d be a huge adjustment with Dante out,” Snyder said. “A lot of our progression defensively started with Rudy and Dante. That’s your catcher and your shortstop. That adjustment, then to adjust again to Rudy being out and (Favors).
“You’ve seen different teams offensively. We’ve gone through growing pains every time we’ve had a personnel adjustment. … It’s never perfect. But defensively it’s more noticeable. We’re at a point now where we’re more solid defensively than we’ve been at other times in the year.”
Depth has been an issue all season, but the Jazz have continuously had others step up.
The point guard position had been inconsistent, but the Jazz traded a second-round pick to the Atlanta Hawks for Shelvin Mack and he instantly became a starter. He’s averaged a career-high 12.3 points and 4.9 assists since joining the team.
Rookie Trey Lyles started 29 games and proved deserving of playing time with a six-game stretch averaging 13.3 points.
Rookie Raul Neto started 53 games and shot better than the preseason scouting report.
Second-year guard Rodney Hood (14.7 points) has developed into a dangerous perimeter scorer.
Joe Ingles made his first start of the season with Hayward out and played 37 minutes and had the assignment of guarding LeBron James during a surprise win over Cleveland.
“We knew from the start of the year we could be a playoff team if we did the right things and played the right way,” Ingles said. “Obviously, we’ve had a little bit of bad luck with injuries. Since All-Star just tried to keep that one-game mindset.
“We didn’t expect not to have Gordon and we didn’t expect not to have Rudy. Just one game at a time and hopefully we can keep winning.”
The Jazz (33-35) have 14 games remaining in the sprint for a playoff spot. Two of those are against the Houston Rockets (34-34) and Dallas Mavericks (34-34), the two teams ahead of the Jazz and currently tied for the No. 7 and No. 8 slot. The Portland Trail Blazers (35-34) currently sit at No. 6.
“Everyone looks at the big picture of making it, but you’re not going to get there unless you take daily steps,” Mack said. “Taking care of your body and making sure you’re ready to go out there and compete 100 percent. Everyone’s old and mature enough to understand you have to win one game at a time to make the playoffs. Just taking it slow.
“We’re all self-motivated. We know what’s at stake and the opportunity that we have.”