NBA fans not closely following the league might be surprised to learn which team in Wednesday night's marquee matchup in Salt Lake City enters with the best record, red-hot outside shooting and an offense and defense both ranked in the top four.
That would be the Utah Jazz, not the defending NBAchampion Los Angeles Lakers.
The Jazz dominated another opponent in crunch time Monday night en route to a 132-110 victory against the Charlotte Hornets, giving Utah its 21st win in 23 games.
That win, which included the Jazz storming back from an 11-point, third-quarter deficit, was made possible by a franchise-record 28 3-pointers by Utah, another steady game by Donovan Mitchell (23 points, eight assists) and three 20-point outings from reserves Joe Ingles (21), Georges Niang (21) and Jordan Clarkson (20).
Ingles and Niang each drained seven 3s and Clarkson netted five deep shots as the Jazz's bench set an NBA record with 19 3-pointers. Mitchell, who had three 3-pointers, helped Utah become the quickest team in NBA history to make 500 3-pointers in a season -- in their 31st game.
In typical fashion, the Jazz annihilated their opponent as they got rolling. Utah outscored Charlotte 41-20 in the fourth quarter thanks to a game-changing 15-0 run. Considering the Jazz were not functioning at their usual high level for three quarters and the Lakers' game was up next, it could have been an easy game to let slip away.
"The No. 1 team in the league wins a game like that," Mitchell said. "That's really where our head is at. That's where we need to continue to be."
Meanwhile, the Lakers travel to Utah on a down note. Los Angeles squandered a 17-point, second-half lead in an eventual overtime home loss to the Washington Wizards on Monday.
Los Angeles was temporarily matching the Jazz's recent winning ways, putting together a seven-game surge (Utah has streaks of 11 and nine games in January and February). But the Lakers have lost four of five and three straight.
Part of the problem is the absence of All-Star center Anthony Davis and guard Dennis Schroder because of injuries. Davis won't return for at least three weeks due to a calf injury. Schroder must miss at least one more game because of the NBA's health and safety protocols.
"It takes a whole team to collectively get wins, and right now we have two of our main rotation guys out," forward Kyle Kuzma said after Monday's defeat. "Obviously, there's no excuses. You don't want to lose to an under-.500 team like that, but this is the NBA and anybody can win. We just have to figure it out."
MVP candidate LeBron James has added weight on his shoulders with the undermanned team. James, 36, has logged the third-most minutes in the NBA this season, including 43 in the overtime loss.
"I can continue to do it," James said. "But I would much rather us be whole."
--Field Level Media