When the Minnesota Timberwolves traded Ricky Rubio to the Utah Jazz last summer, it was widely viewed as a good move for all parties. But today after Rubio catalyzed the Utah Jazz in their commanding 121 to 97 win, vaulting Utah over Minnesota into 6th spot in the Western playoff standings, the Timberwolves may be having second thoughts.
After a competitive first quarter where Utah established a two-point lead, Rubio took over the game by, of all things, making four threes in the second quarter. The offensive explosion by the player Minnesota watched pass up or brick open shots for six seasons seemed to shock the Timberwolves. Rubio, who has never experienced the playoffs, played a huge roll in firming up Utah’s place in the post-season with 16 first-half points in a game with massive seeding implications. He finished the night with 23 points.
Inspired by their Spanish floor general, the rest of the Jazz offense blazed away from the second quarter on, scoring 93 points in the final three quarters. When the terrifying defense that is Utah’s calling card locked down in the second half, an already double-figure lead ballooned: 11 at half became 16 at the end of the third, eventually swelling to a game-high 29 before garbage time. Six Jazz scored in double figures, with Rubio and Donovan Mitchell (21) both putting in over 20 points.
In a crucial game between teams with equal records, the Jazz simply dominated a playoff rival on the opponent’s home floor, giving them a season-changing 14 and one streak on the road.
Stars of the Game
Superstar: Ricky Rubio (23 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, 5 threes)
On a night where Utah needed their best basketball to cement playoff position, they got it and Rubio was their best player. His four made threes in the pivotal second quarter were predominantly responsible for blowing Utah’s lead up from two to 11, and the Jazz never really looked back. It’s amazing to see Rubio’s confidence offensively, as well as the trust he has from Utah’s coaches and his teammates. Amazingly, Rubio is now shooting 35 percent from three. If he can sustain anything near that, he may finally be achieving the potential that had given him mythic status in Europe as a teen before he was ever drafted into the NBA.
Secondary Stars: Derrick Favors (16 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks), Rudy Gobert (6 points, 13 rebounds, 1 assist, 4 blocks), and Dante Exum (14 points, 5 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 steal, 6 free throws)
While 22 points and 16 rebounds may not sound particularly impressive for Utah’s starting front court in combination, it was their defense where they really controlled this game. Despite the offensive firepower of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, who combined for 43 points, Gobert and Favors contested shots at the rim while at other times chasing Towns out to the three-point line well enough to allow Utah’s defense to stay home on Minnesota’s role players. This limited to the Timberwolves’s offense to only what their superstars could create, largely for themselves. Gobert ended the night with a terrifying defensive rating of 80.2! Despite guarding Towns much of the night as well as protecting the rim as backup center, Favors’s defensive rating was a less stellar but still awesome 97.6. A team with two rim protectors capable of holding a team like the Timberwolves under 100 points per 100 possessions is a squad no team wants to see in the playoffs.
Exum’s thrilling return from shoulder surgery has provided the Jazz something they have lacked essentially all season: potent and consistent production off the bench from multiple players. Jae Crowder has fit into this team as if designed for it, but many nights he’s been propping up Utah’s bench alone, especially offensively. Exum has now scored 13 or more points in three of his last four games and has an effective field goal rate of 62 percent this season. His assist percentage has quietly risen to tie Rubio’s team high. The Jazz have literally waited for years to see what they have in Exum. He’s starting to show it just might approximate what the team hoped when they made him the fifth overall pick in the draft.
Secret Star: Jonas Jerebko (13 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, 1 three)
On a night where Utah’s bench buried the Timberwolves’s, Jerebko did more than simply sit beyond the arc and launch threes, a role in which he does have considerable value. But today he compounded that value by using his always abundant energy to score off smart cuts to the rim and drives to the hoop when defenders closed out. By night’s end, he made five of six attempts from the field, only two of which came behind the arc. That type of efficiency is repeatable given the shots Jerebko was getting in Utah’s humming offense. If he can start to make defenses worry about him in the corners but also as a threat cutting and driving to the rim, the Jazz offense could be nightmarish.
Stats of the Game
123.5 – Utah’s offensive rating, their eighth best performance of the season.
83.2 – The Jazz’s defensive rating from the start of the second half to 3:44 left in the game when Quin Snyder put in his bench.
106 – Points in the paint by these team’s combined.
29 – Assists by the Jazz, the 12th time this season they’ve managed at least that many. They won each of those games.
22 – Jazz free throws in the second half (18 made). They only took three in the first half, missing all of them.
50 – Utah bench points.
- There’s a good argument this was the most important game of the season to this point and the Jazz crushed the Timberwolves on their home floor. At this point, Utah isn’t thinking about making the playoffs as much as winning a first round series. If they stay in 6th or better that means avoiding the Rockets and Warriors in the first round. With the way the Jazz are playing, particularly on the road, I’m not sure another team in the West would be favored over them even with home court advantage.
- Ingles and Gobert combined for 12 points. They average 25 on the season. Utah’s 50 points of the bench were mammoth. If they can count on even two players to provide an offensive lift off the bench rather than just Crowder, this team becomes really, really hard to beat.
- As of night now, the Jazz are brimming with great stories long in the making, particularly on the injury front. Exum’s return has been glorious and he looks like a difference-making NBA talent. While Alec Burks has largely fallen out of the rotation due to other players simply playing better, he’s been healthy all season, which is great news in itself. And Derrick Favors is playing unfettered and free. Tonight he defensively slid along with stretch four Nemanja Bjelica driving from the three point line and rejected his shot at the rim, then sprinted down the floor for an alley-oop he hammered home. That movement hasn’t been on display for years. He continues to try to add the three to his game, missing two today (one badly), but off an offensive rebound he fought through three players to dunk HARD on their heads. Whether his future is with the Jazz or elsewhere, Favors is very good NBA player who is clearly enjoying playing again. It’s great to see.
- As imposing as Utah’s defense is, one of it’s few weak spots continues to be zippy little scoring guards. Even with Jeff Teague out1, Tyus Jones and Aaron Brooks scored 27 combined points, though it did take them 25 shots. Part of this was shots simply weren’t available elsewhere. Either Towns or Wiggins created for themselves, of the point guards were left to do so.
- It’s reasonable to believe that Snyder was out-coached by Brad Stevens in the Jazz’s recent upset loss at home against Boston. But tonight, Snyder easily got the best of a very well-respected coach in Tom Thibodeau. Utah got what they wanted offensively while Minnesota got very little they wanted offensively. A huge reason for this was Snyder decision to have Favors guard Towns. While Towns did manage 20 on 13 shots, he couldn’t force the Jazz to double team, which resulted in Minnesota’s role players being completely shut out of this game. When Gobert can roam and help defensively, which Favors’s often allows him to do, scoring on Utah’s defense is one of the most difficult tasks in the league.
Five games left in the regular season. The sixth seed. After the Nuggets and Clippers both lost at home to Eastern Conference competition today, there’s little threat of being ousted from the playoffs from behind. Now all eyes are forward. Oklahoma City, half a game ahead. The Spurs, one game ahead.
Utah is hunting home court, and the Lakers had better be ready for a buzzsaw on Tuesday in Salt Lake City.
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