When: 9:00pm est
Where: Energy Solutions Arena, Salt Lake City, Utah
Where to Watch: Fox Sports South, NBA League Pass, your TV, laptop, tablet, or phone. Don't even think about watching it on your desktop.
Let's make one thing clear -- the Utah Jazz, despite a 29-36 record, should not be underestimated. They are 10-2 since the All-Star break, which by the way, is best in the league, and in the process have defeated the Portland Trailblazers, San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzles, and Houston Rockets. They are riding a five game winning streak, four of which came against Eastern Conference opponents. With each win against the East, Utah increasingly wonders why they at least can't be considered for an Eastern Conference playoff spot, at least for this season.
In all seriousness, the Jazz are on the rise. One time Charlotte Hornets offer-sheet signer Gordon Hayward is having a career year, averaging 19.6 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game, with a field goal percentage of 45.4 percent, and a 3-point percentage at a reasonable 37.7 percent. That whole debate people were having of whether Hayward is a legit first-option scorer or not? Well he is (you're allowed to cry now Hornets fans).
Derrick Favors is having a break out year as well, averaging 16.4 points, and 8.2 rebounds per game. His switch from center to power forward this season has made a difference, and he's living up to the $49 million extension he received last season.
A big (literally) reason for the Jazz's recent success has been Rudy Gobert, otherwise known as "The Stifle Tower." He's a 7'1 second year player from France averaging 7.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per game. In his last 10 games, he's averaging 11.5 points and 15.3 rebounds, including 22 rebounds against the Rockets, and 19 rebounds against the Pistons (Utah's last two games by the way). He's in some ways what the then Charlotte Bobcats hoped to expect from Alexis Ajinca when they drafted him 20th back in 2008. His season averages aren't mind-blowing, but he's a menace defensively.
So if the Jazz are the hottest team in the NBA, how could the Hornets game plan against them? Al Jefferson was upgraded to questionable for tonight's game (that's as of Sunday night), and there's no word on Cody Zeller's status either. That means Bismack Biyombo and Marvin Williams will likely start again, which actually could work in Charlotte's favor. Williams' ability to stretch the floor could make for a tricky matchup for Favors. If Jazz head coach Quin Snyder opts to go small and move Favors to the center position, Biyombo will matchup against Favors, who will be playing in the position he favors less. If Jefferson plays and guards Gobert, he won't have to worry so much about Gobert's scoring ability, but he must make it a priority to keep Gobert off the boards.
The Hornets could also look to exploit Utah's young guards Trey Burke and Dante Exum. Burke and Exum are both exciting and very promising players, but Charlotte holds the edge in the backcourt in both current talent level and experience. Mo Williams and Kemba Walker should be aggressive on offense (which shouldn't be hard for either of them), especially if Jefferson is out. If Burke gets hot, Steve Clifford should shift Micheal Kidd-Gilchrist over on defense to lock him down, unless of course Hayward is having a good shooting night (it's still okay to cry).
Beyond Hayward, Favors, and Burke the Jazz don't have another scoring averaging ten points a game for the season. Alec Burks is done for the season due to injury, and Enes Kanter aka, "Al Jefferson's practice dummy" was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder. However, rookie Rodney Hood has shown a lot of improvement since the All-Star break, increasing his 3-point percentage from 28.6 before the All-Star break, to 45.5 after it. The Hornets must make sure to lock him down, or he could be the role player that swings the momentum in Utah's favor if he were to hit a couple of 3-pointers.
While Mo Williams and Walker will receive a lot of attention on offense, count on Gerald Henderson to continue his great month of March. Henderson is averaging 15.4 points a game in eight games this month, with a field goal percentage of 49 percent, and a 3-point percentage of, wait for it, 40 percent, and he's attempting more 3-pointers this month than he has all season. The team has been looking desperately for a wing scorer that can knock down the 3-point shot, and Henderson, at least for the moment, is filling that role.
Charlotte will obviously need its top players to score if they are to get the win, but as always, they must rely on playing strong defense and out rebounding Utah. A big reason they beat the Chicago Bulls Friday was with how relentless they were on the glass, and how difficult they made it for the Bulls to score. If the Hornets can make it difficult for Hayward, Favors, and Burke to score, while keeping Gobert from grabbing 22 rebounds in three quarters (which is something he actually did), then Charlotte can get the victory. It'll be an important win too, as west coast road trips only get harder the longer they drag on.
*Side Note: Be sure to check out SLC Dunk, the SB Nation blog covering the Utah Jazz. They do a great job over there, and site manager AllThatAmar has confirmed that Jazz fans have a soft spot for the Hornets with all the former Jazz players on the roster.