Salt City Seven: Persistence, Resurgence and the Guy in the Corner

Dan Clayton , 2019-03-11 21:18:13
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The Salt City Seven drops every week throughout the regular season, with seven regular features meant to relive the week in Jazzland from various angles. Check in every Monday for the quotes, stats, plays and performances that tell the stories from the last 168 hours in the world of the Jazz.

An important quote from Jazz players or personnel during the week.

“We can’t take these teams lightly, thinking we’re just going to come in here and win. They’re playing for free. They’re playing free. They’re having fun. We have to get ready to get everyone’s best shot from here until the end of the season.”

-Donovan Mitchell, in Tony Jones’ great column at The Athletic about Utah stumbling against lotto teams

Starting with last week’s three games, 16 of the Utah Jazz’s final 20 outings will come against teams not projected to make the playoffs. It’s the soft stretch of schedule that fans and analysts have pointed to all season long, the recompense for Utah’s brutal first half. There’s just one problem: somebody forgot to tell those lottery-bound opponents that this is supposed to be the Jazz’s easy stretch.

There’s a downside to a softer slate, and the Jazz experienced it last week: unpredictability.

Last week, the Jazz ran into squads from Memphis and New Orleans who are playing without the pressure of an intense postseason seeding race. And not only did they face looser opponents, but because of those teams’ resting strategies and future-focused roster moves, they also saw rotations and combinations they hadn’t seen before.

Every team has a dozen or so different schemes they can throw out there to try and slow an Anthony Davis-Jrue Holiday pick-and-roll. Those guys are top guys at their positions, so coaches and advanced scouts have burnt through a lot of brain cells thinking about how to address that combination. If we’re honest, nobody has spent quite as much time devising methods of defending the Julius Randle-Frank Jackson pick-and-roll. So when Davis hit the bench early as part of his team’s new approach to pull the All-NBA big man, Utah was suddenly dealing with a guy who they’re just not used to planning for as a 30-percent usage guy.

Of course, you’d still rather see Randle rolling down the lane than Davis (and the Jazz absolutely should have had a 3-0 week), but that just shows the complexity of dealing with teams who are improvising their rotations and trying to run out the clock on the 2018-19 season.

Similarly, they then ran into Memphis, a team whose rebuilding moves have put a new combination of pieces around star guard Mike Conley. Marc Gasol and JaMychal Green are better than Jonas Valanciunas and the specter of Joakim Noah, but teams don’t yet have a fully formed scouting report on the dozens of new lineup combinations, their strengths and their liabilities. That’s how the Grizzlies were also able to trip up the (likely) playoff-bound Blazers and Magic.

It’s hard to formulate a game plan or otherwise mentally prepare when you don’t know who’s going to play, for how long, and to what degree different guys are going to care about the outcome. While someone who’s a known commodity might be resting or going through the motions, you might have a handful of his teammates who are going gangbusters to earn their second 10-day contract or lock in a non-guaranteed salary for next season. 

And that’s just one of the ways an ostensibly soft schedule presents some unique challenges.

It also presents less unexpected upside when a schedule is full of “should-win” games. Teams around them have been able to pick up unbudgeted wins — Houston got one in Toronto, San Antonio beat Milwaukee and the Clips upset the Thunder, all in the last week. For the Jazz, there are few (if any) unbudgeted wins left — only unbudgeted losses. Every game they win from here on out will either be an “as expected” outcome, or at worst a 50-50 prospect, like Monday’s Jazz-Thunder series finale. And every game they lose will feel like a mild tragedy.

One additional downside to this purportedly cushy stretch might not become evident until the postseason. Utah may face a team that has spent weeks in playoff-style battles while Utah has been playing glorified exhibition games against tanking teams. The Jazz may have to ratchet up the intensity in a hurry to catch up to a playoff opponent that has been playing weeks’ worth of intense games just to get to April 13.

For now, the Jazz’s focus needs to be as Machiavellian as possible: they need wins. They need to face Phoenix and Washington with the same emotional energy and mental focus as they brought to their games against Milwaukee and Denver. They need to do what Mitchell suggested and assume the guys down the sideline from them are plotting to spoil their aspirations.

Because they are.

 

Stats that tell the story of the week or highlight a timely topic.

+27

With their 18 three-point shots made to Memphis’ nine, Utah became the 18th team this season to outscore its opponent by 25 or more from the 3-point line and still lose the game. Only one of those teams (Dallas, vs. Milwaukee on February 8) lost the game by a wider margin than Utah’s minus-10. The Jazz also scored three more points at the line than the Grizzlies, which means they lost the two-point battle by 40 points. Memphis scored 60 points in the paint, and the Jazz are 2-9 when their opponents scores 58 or more there.

22

On Wednesday night, all of Mitchell (22), Derrick Favors (25) and Rudy Gobert (22) went for at least 22 in New Orleans. It was the fifth time this season — and the third time in two weeks! — that three Jazz players have all scored 22 or more in the same game. That didn’t happen at all last season, or even in Utah’s 51-win season the year before. The last time it happened was in November 2015. Not surprisingly, Mitchell has been in the 22-plus trio each of the five times that it has happened this season. Gobert and Ricky Rubio were involved in three of them, while Favors and Jae Crowder each had a part in two.

10

While we’re at it, Rubio and Joe Ingles each delivered 10 assists or more that night as well, a much rarer feat. The last time two Jazz players dropped 10 dimes in the same game was in March 2008 when Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams were both feeling generous. Williams and Andrei Kirilenko also did it in November of that same season, and before that you have to go all the way back to 2001 when Jacque Vaughn joined franchise legend John Stockton in double figures.

+10.3

This may come as a surprise to a very vocal contingent of Jazz fans who are dissatisfied with Rubio’s recent play, but the Spanish guard actually had the best Net Rating on the team this past week. Utah also struggled greatly when he sat: minus-5.6. The only player whose rests cost them more was Mitchell (-7.1 off). 

107.1

Here’s a weird one that I just don’t know what to do with: Gobert’s DRtg last week was a pretty disappointing 107.1. Utah’s Net Rating was 9.2 points better per 100 possessions when he sat (+6.4) than when he played (-2.8). That obviously won’t continue, but Valanciunas, Davis and Randle all clearly bothered him this week. In fact, players who were primarily guarded by Gobert at the end of a play shot 31-for-58 (53%) last week.

 

Breaking down the Xs and Os behind a Jazz score from the week.

Gobert paint seal

Here’s a little pet play the Jazz have been running for Royce O’Neale lately. It uses the gravity of Gobert’s roll and a clever little wrinkle to get O’Neale all the way to the rim untouched. They ran it on back-to-back plays on Friday night.

Most of the Jazz’s best actions involve knowing how the defense is going to react and then turning that against them. That’s the case here. The pick-and-roll action is going away from O’Neale’s corner, which makes his man the designated helper in both scenarios. Because the Jazz know O’Neale’s guy is going to leave him, they have Gobert roll pretty convincingly, but then right as O’Neale beats the closeout, Gobert’s role changes: watch him seal the paint so that nobody can step over to stop the drive.

Even when the defense knows it’s coming or just saw it (those two plays were less than a minute apart), it’s still a great design to counter a certain type of P&R defense. If the on-ball defender goes over the screen and the dropped big is forced to contain, then the corner defender has only two choices: let Rudy dunk, or go “tag” the roller but in so doing give up the baseline to Royce.

Here’s another example of the same play, but this time in stills to highlight why it works. This one was from earlier in the week, and this time they run it from the left side of the floor instead. (Click to enlarge.)

(Game stills)

Keep an eye out for this. The Jazz are using it a lot lately as a way to break the paint against drop big defenses. Crowder and the guards will also get this called for them.

 

After each Jazz win, Twitter helps us decide who was that game’s MVP or most memorable performer.

Jazz 114, Pelicans 104: Derrick Favors

I actually thought this one was ridiculously close between Favors and Gobert, but the Twitter vote was literally unanimous in Favors’ favor, so I let the ayes have it. Gobert’s case is that he had a more complete line (22 & 13, with 4 blocks), held all Pelicans to 1-for-10 shooting at the rim, and guarded Davis for virtually every second he was on the floor. That said, if you watched the game, it’s easy to understand why Favors got some of the narrative juice. He had 15 (on 6-for-7) in the second half alone, and in a still-close fourth quarter, the Jazz continually went back to the well of the Favors-Ingles pick-and-roll to pull away. He had a game-high 25 and just edged his froncourt-mate thanks to the popular vote swaying me.

 

Tracking the wild Western Conference postseason race and the Jazz’s place in it.

It’s officially time to take the Lakers off this graphic. They have lost five straight. They have fallen past Minnesota into 11th place. They are 7.5 games out of the eighth seed, and they have already lost the tiebreaker to both the teams parked there1. FiveThirtyEight, B-Ref and BPI all give them less than a one percent chance at making the postseason. So I’m comfortable making this a “2 through 9” graphic going forward. 

The playoff picture heading into 3/11 games.

Utah still has the easiest opponent slate by far, even after playing three straight against sub-.500 teams. They don’t have any road games left against teams with a better record, and after Monday night, they’ll only have one left anywhere versus an elite team.

But here’s what hurts: OKC and Portland both flinched last week, and Utah couldn’t take advantage. Had the Jazz taken care of business against the Pels and Grizz, they’d enter the week tied in the loss column with those two teams, with an opportunity to pull ahead of the Thunder on Monday.

 

A quick look at the Jazz’s next seven nights of action.

Seventeen games remain for the Jazz, starting with a 4-in-6-nights stretch this week. 

Monday: Oklahoma City at Utah, 7:00 p.m. MT 

  • State of the Thunder: With a 2-6 stretch since their double-overtime win against the Jazz, OKC has lost its grip on the No. 3 seed. Paul George missed three games during that stretch, and shot just 29 percent in the five he played.
  • Jazz-Thunder: Monday marks Utah’s last chance to get a regular season win against their playoff opponent from last April. Utah lost its last two to OKC by 1-point margins, including a 2OT heartbreaker where they squandered several late opportunities.
  • Key for the Jazz: As always, the key is protecting the paint from Russell Westbrook drives without letting George get hot. The Thunder are 20-4 this season in games where PG shoots above 43 percent from deep.

Wednesday: Utah at Phoenix, 8:00 p.m. MT

  • State of the Suns: The Suns’ still sport the West’s worst record, but they’ve won five of seven overall, and in the past week they’ve taken down each conference’s top team.
  • Jazz-Pels: Weirdly, the teams have faced off just once this season, a 28-point trouncing by the Jazz. That means that Utah has to face these suddenly competent Suns three times in the next month. 
  • Key for the Jazz: Devin Booker is obviously the head of the snake, but the Jazz will need to account for  rookie DeAndre Ayton, who’s averaging 18 and 9 in the Suns’ current 5-2 stretch.

Thursday: Minnesota at Utah, 7:00 p.m. MT

  • State of the Wolves: Minny started the year in a 4-9 hole during the Jimmy Butler drama, and is 28-24 since they moved on via a November trade. They still haven’t beaten a likely playoff team away from home since January 8, though. 
  • Jazz-Wolves: Utah leads the season series 2-1 after sweeping a home-and-home set in late January. But these games tend to be spicy, even if Gobert is 10-3 all-time against Karl-Anthony Towns in games they both played. 
  • Key for the Jazz: Neither Tom Thibodeau nor his replacement Ryan Saunders has been able to get this team to defend the perimeter; they’re literally last in the league in defending non-garbage time threes, per Cleaning the Glass.

Saturday: Brooklyn at Utah, 7:00 p.m. MT

  • State of the Nets: Confession time: I love these guys, and not just because they play 10 minutes from my front door. They work hard, they outplay their talent level, and they have a smart coach and system. They’re basically like the 2015-16 Jazz, except that they’re in the East so their “Hey, we’re here!” year will end in a playoff appearance.
  • Jazz-Nets: Utah visited Brooklyn early in the season, before Kenny Atkinson had gotten things clicking. Utah won that one by 10 as part of an 8-game skid for Brooklyn, but they’re 27-15 since they snapped that losing streak. 
  • Key for the Jazz: Brooklyn has a smart offensive AND defensive shot profile, so expect them to take a lot of threes and challenge Utah’s. The Jazz will need to break the paint and make quick decisions when the Nets’ defense is compromised.

Because after all, we’re here to have fun.

OK, this isn’t technically just a fun entry… but it’s fun for me, a noted Dante Exum believer.

Exum will make his return this week after a severe ankle sprain (and resultant bone bruise) kept him on the shelf for two months. 

The Jazz have missed Exum greatly. He’s the only player outside Mitchell who can consistently puncture the defense with or without a screen, and a key factor in a lot of their losses over the last two month has been a shortage of ball handlers to put sufficient pressure on the defense.

But the real reason why they’ll be thrilled to welcome X back in just in time for playoff prep comes to us courtesy of SCH’s own Riley Gisseman.

First of all, this is just terrific stuff by Riley. He found that each of the star guards Utah is most likely to face in the first round of the playoffs becomes less efficient with Exum defending. On average, these five players see their true shooting efficiency drop from the high 50s to the high 30s. That is a “holy smokes” level impact, especially since the guys in question are some of the most prolific offensive talents of this generation.

A player who has that kind of defensive impact on elite offensive players just got back in time for Utah to head into the postseason.

So yeah, I think that qualifies as fun. 


That will do it this week. Seven more juicy bits of Jazz next Monday.

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops, FanRag and BBALLBreakdown.

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton


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