It’s back! Finally, competitive basketball returns tonight (though the All-Star break was pretty fun), as the Utah Jazz pay a visit to the Bradley Center on a murky, sleety Milwaukee day. It’s a tale of two second halves of the season for both teams, with one common denominator -- the playoffs. Utah currently sits in the middle of the pack at the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference, while the Bucks look to begin their push for the final seed (or higher) in the East.
Coming off the excitement of Giannis Antetokounmpo dropping 30 points in the All-Star Game with earth-shattering dunks and alley-oops, it’s back to the grind for this Bucks team. They’re currently sitting on as much momentum as they have been at any other point this year, riding a 3-game win streak.
After some thought there might be a heavy shake to the roster during the trade deadline, Hammond & Co. decided to fold their hands and sit tight for the most part, with the only move coming in sending Roy Hibbert to Denver for a heavily-protected second round pick. I know, I know, it’s going to be hard for the Milwaukee fan base to recover from this tragic loss, as Roy was an absolute warrior with his work ethic and dedication to this franchise. However, as Bucks fans we’ve been through trying times before and are battle-tested enough where we’ll be able to muster ourselves through this obstacle. Roy’s time as a Milwaukee Buck will be treasured and appreciated for years to come.
This will be the second and final time the Bucks meet Utah this season, with the first game coming back in early February where the Jazz claimed a pretty sturdy victory, 104-88. The Stifle Tower, aka Rudy Gobert was a force for Utah that night (26 points and 14 boards in case you forgot) and you can anticipate him to receive a bulk of the workload again tonight.
Gobert and the other Utah bigs will be a force in the paint tonight for Milwaukee, with rebounding being one of the key stat lines to keep an eye on. It’s been an area that the Bucks haven’t had much of an advantage of this season, coming in with only 41.6 boards per game (26th in the league).
There’s a strong chance that Thon Maker receives the start yet again, and going up against Gobert, he’ll have his hands full. However, this is a matchup that a Bucks fan should be excited for. If Maker is going to shape into the type of player Milwaukee hopes, matchups against opponents like Gobert will deepen his arsenal of on-court instincts. We’re also at the point where if Milwaukee does in fact miss out on the playoffs, development in situations like this need to be taken advantage of and can go a long way for a player with the potential of Thon.
Finally, going back to the playoff push for the Bucks, the schedule needs to be taken advantage of. Eight of Milwaukee’s next 10 games will be played on the Bradley Center floor, a home-heavy stretch which also means 12 of their final 17 will be on the road.
Similar to the Bucks, the Jazz were a team some thought might be aggressive at the trade deadline in order to move up the ranks in the Western Conference. They too ended up remaining mum by passing on any moves and right now, that might be the best case for them as they are positioned at the No. 5 spot in a strong Western Conference.
However, a small slump was floating around Salt Lake City pre-All-Star break, with Utah dropping three of its last four. Injuries have been a common theme for this team, but they’re finally hoping they’re in the clear. A slew of players (Alec Burks, George Hill, Derrick Favors and Dante Exum) spent a chunk of the first half on the disabled list (Wait, that doesn’t exist in basketball! Sorry, baseball is finally back and I’m excited) and are being given the green light by Head Coach Quin Snyder to begin the final 25 games of the season.
You can’t talk about this Jazz team without the contributions of Gordon Hayward. The veteran (feels weird to say) out of Butler has put forth quite the respectable season so far, tallying 22.2 points per game, which was solid enough for him to earn his first career trip to the All-Star Game. Hopefully we get a scenario of Giannis defending Hayward in the final minute of the game, because that would be pretty awesome to watch, and probably mean the Bucks aren’t down by twenty like last time.
The ingredient to success for this Jazz team doesn’t derive from its offense, but rather their capabilities on defense. Like Milwaukee, they bring lots of length to the table. However, unlike Milwaukee, they’re able to translate it into success. Utah currently ranks as the No. 1 team in points allowed per game, with opponents averaging only 95.7 points. In terms of defensive ratings, Utah registers in the top five for that category as well (101.6) and sit behind only Golden State and San Antonio in the rankings. This will serve as a good test for Giannis and the rest of the Bucks in the post-Parker injury timeline.
If you’re a Badger basketball fan, at times you might find yourself saying “Oh, so this is why people complain about the Wisconsin offense,” as the Jazz hold the slowest pace in all of the league at just 93.47 percent. In other words, don’t let their offense put you to sleep tonight. But if you do, let’s hope a blocked shot and Jon McGlocklin yelling will wake you up.
Rodney Hood is up in the air on returning and remains questionable, as he’s been dealing with a right bone bruise that’s kept him out of the last seven games.