The 0-4 Mavs know Jazz are a force to be reckoned with

SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder attempted to be a calm voice of reason. He doesn't want anyone to get too worked up after watching his team win convincingly against perennial playoff teams on back-to-back nights.

Even with star Gordon Hayward wearing a suit on the bench while waiting for his broken finger to heal, plus fellow cornerstone Derrick Favors playing limited minutes while he works his way back into shape coming off a knee injury. Sorry, coach, but that's pretty impressive.

"It's hard to get too excited or too frustrated at this point of the year," Snyder said after the Jazz's 97-81 victory Wednesday night over the Dallas Mavericks. "I'm not ready to draw too many conclusions. We've got a long way to go, but I do like the way we compete."

It's hardly a hot take to predict that the Jazz, who added three proven, quality veterans this summer to one of the NBA's most intriguing young cores, will end a five-season playoff drought. The question is which West team will be left out because Utah claims a spot.

The winless Mavs certainly seem to be strong candidates for that dubious distinction.

"It's frickin' four games in," said Dirk Nowitzki, a playoff participant in 15 of the past 16 seasons. "You've just got to keep battling and then stop the bleeding at home."

OK, perhaps it's just a wee bit premature to write off the Mavs, particularly considering that the big German has missed half of their games because of a vicious stomach bug. Nowitzki was hardly himself Wednesday night, huffing and puffing as he scored only nine points on 4-of-14 shooting, clearly not having his wind back after the ravages of the past week.

Plus, Dallas fans might note that the Mavs managed to win 67 games the last time they opened a season 0-4. Of course, this Mavs squad isn't coming off a Finals appearance with a prime Dirk.

Nevertheless, it's never wise to dismiss a Nowitzki-led Mavs team from playoff consideration, even when he's 38 years old. Dallas hasn't made its way out of the first round since its 2011 title run, but Nowitzki and coach Rick Carlisle have consistently dragged mediocre supporting casts into the postseason, the lone exception being when Nowitzki missed the first two months of the season because of knee surgery.

However, with all due respect, this is a flawed Mavs roster that will again have to fight, scratch and claw for one of the West's final spots. And Dallas has dug itself a hole.

"We're fighting, but we've got to play better," Carlisle said. "I'm going to take a hard look at this tonight and decide where to go from here."

The Mavs, even with all sorts of injury issues, finished strong last season to claim the sixth seed with a 42-40 record in a weakened West. Dallas eliminated Utah, which had plenty of medical problems of its own, in this building during the final week of the season.

This Mavs visit to the "bad city of Utah" -- to borrow the classic Dirk malapropism from his first playoff appearance way back in 2001 -- doesn't have nearly the same significance. No team has ever clinched a playoff spot or been eliminated a week into a season.

But how could you possibly not believe that the Jazz are ready to make a jump?

Center Rudy Gobert (12 points, 12 rebounds, 3 blocks vs. Dallas) has established himself as one of the league's premier interior presences at the ripe old age of 24. Shooting guard Rodney Hood, another 24-year-old who had 22 points and seven rebounds Wednesday, is blossoming into an all-around player who can light it up. And just wait until Hayward and Favors get right, not to mention the development of peach-fuzz-faced Dante Exum and Trey Lyles.

The Jazz probably would have been a playoff team if they had stayed pat this offseason. But general manager Dennis Lindsey shrewdly added three versatile vets with a combined 284 games of playoff experience in guard George Hill, swingman Joe Johnson and forward/center Boris Diaw.

Entering the season, it was assumed that Hayward and Favors were Utah's best players. They are without question foundation pieces, but Hill has been the Jazz's clear MVP five games into the season.

With the young stars nursing injuries, Hill has carried the Jazz, averaging an efficient 21.4 points with an assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 3-to-1. He was spectacular in Tuesday's victory over the San Antonio Spurs, scoring 10 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter as Utah snapped a 10-game losing streak in that arena, which is rarely kind to visitors. He was dominant again at home the next night against Dallas, scoring 25 points on 9-of-15 shooting. Hill, along with Johnson, has also provided a sense of calm that a team with a talented young core that has never tasted the playoffs truly needed.

"The leadership component to me is probably the most unique," Snyder said. "That's something that our team is responding to, especially with Gordon being out."

Of course, Hill isn't getting too carried away. He's preaching about maintaining focus and building chemistry as the buzz about the Jazz grows.

"It's early, but it's good to play well early to give yourself a cushion because we know the West is tough," Hill said. "As good as we're going to be [will be determined by] how well we can continue to stick together and jell, keep playing the right way, keep sharing it, keep defending. That's how good we're going to be."

How good can the Jazz be? Just ask the guy whom they might bump out of the playoff mix.

"They're pretty loaded," Nowitzki said. "They've got a whole lot of talent. And in this building, a lot happens usually in their favor. They're for sure going to be a team to be reckoned with."