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Subscribe this channel for more oldschool games!
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After the Oklahoma City Thunder win Game 1 against the Utah Jazz, Russell Westbrook says that the Thunder are 1 down and have 15 left to go.

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Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook gets his 90th career triple-double against the Utah Jazz, scoring 27 points. He also got 10 rebounds and 10 assists.

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Favors, Jerebko Lead the Way in Jazz’s Rout of Nuggets

Dan Clayton , 2019-04-08 22:11:33
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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.

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

Dan Clayton , 2019-04-01 20:22:28
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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 improved. When you work at something and it’s important to you, you’re going to figure out ways to be successful at it. It’s who we are.”

-Jazz coach Quin Snyder, on how his team has improved on the defensive end

Team defense is usually about choices. NBA players are too talented, and the offenses built around them too intricate, to take everything away. So defenses pick and choose where to apply the most pressure. But like squeezing one part of a balloon animal, when you squeeze one part of the balloon, the air just finds its way to another part of the balloon.

Take the league’s top defense, for example. The Bucks devote an inordinate amount of defensive focus to protecting the paint, and for good reason. Milwaukee’s opponents take the smallest percentage of their non-garbage time shots at the rim, and convert the smallest percentage of them, per Cleaning the Glass. But that comes with a trade-off: the Bucks also allow their opponents to take 35.8% of their shots at the 3-point line, the highest figure in the league. Their system works for them because of their long, athletic personnel, but their defensive identity still reflects that choice.

Almost as a counterpoint, you have another Eastern Conference power, the Philadelphia 76ers. Philly defense allows opponents to take the fourth fewest threes (as a percentage of their offense in meaningful minutes), but all of that running out to shooters creates fissures that have allowed the ninth most rim attempts. 

Both Philly and Milwaukee are elite in terms of overall shot defense (by opponent eFG%), and yet they exist opposite each other on the spectrum of defensive choices, a perfect allegory for how hard it is to deny an NBA offense both the paint and the three.

Enter the Utah Jazz.

The Jazz don’t believe in such choices. When Snyder says that the team has improved at defense, what he means is that the Jazz have found the discipline to smartly challenge shooters and to protect the paint without collapsing and over-helping. This makes Utah a rare breed, a defense capable of protecting the two most fertile areas for NBA offenses. Utah is the only team in the top five for limiting rim attempts AND 3-pointers. 

No contenders are even close to being elite at protecting both areas. Golden State is 2nd at limiting rim attempts, but 19th at limiting threes. Toronto is 11th and 10th, respectively. None of Houston (15th/8th), Boston (8th/28th), Denver (24th/23rd) or Portland (19th/2nd) have the defensive versatility to shut down both zones at an elite level, and we already covered Milwaukee (1st/30th) and Philadelphia (22nd/4th)1.

Utah is just special defensively, the second-best overall defense in the league this season, and the best in March. Their system is obviously designed around the unique talent of paint anchor Rudy Gobert, but it’s deeper than that. They have committed defenders at every rotation spot, and that discipline to the team goals on each possessions makes the group better collectively than the sum of its parts.

Yes, Gobert’s presence back behind allows guards to pressure the outside differently than a team that doesn’t employ the DPOY and his 9-foot-7 standing reach. But that doesn’t mean that the perimeter defenders are playing recklessly. They play with a distinct set of overarching principles in mind, augmented by smart game plans for specific opponents. No team allows fewer wide-open 3-point shots than Utah and the same is true if you add together the open and wide-open threes. The Jazz guards and wings aren’t gambling; they know what they want to do defensively, and by and large, they do it.

Sure, they get tripped up, as they did on Friday night when they allowed 117.5 points per possession to the lottery-bound Wizards. But that was the only game in the last 11 in which Utah’s defensive performance was below average, and in six games over that span, their DRtg was in the top 10 percent of all games played this NBA season.

In other words, the defense is clicking in again. 

 

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

0:43

That’s the total amount of time that Utah has trailed during the second halves of games during their current 4-game winning streak. In fact, of the 192 total minutes in those four games, Utah trailed for exactly 11 of them: 24 seconds against Chicago, 5:04 against Phoenix, and 5:32 against Washington. They never trailed against the Lakers.

280

Gobert currently holds a 280-272 edge on Giannis Antetokounmpo as this season’s dunk leader, but his 280 also makes him the all-time leader for dunks in a season (since the NBA started counting them, anyway). Gobert’s response to setting the record was great, as he reflexively gave the nod to his teammates: “It’s their record, too.” Fair enough, since 73% of his dunks this season have been assisted. “All I have to do is put it in the basket.” For the record, that’s a gross oversimplification, but his desire to share the praise is laudable nonetheless.

38%

Barring a late surge, neither Joe Ingles nor Kyle Korver will finish the year above the 40% mark for 3-point shots (with the Jazz, in Korver’s case). Both are sitting on 38% right now, and assuming both guys take five per game over the Jazz’s final six, Ingles would need a nearly impossible 21-for-30 finish to reach 40%. Korver would only need a 17-for-30 close, which feels more attainable except that he’s shooting just 29% over the last five games. He “only” needs a 14-for-30 close to lock in a true 40% for the season, including his 16 games with Cleveland. 

+13.8

Jae Crowder had a pretty brutal outing on both sides of the ball in Atlanta, Utah’s lone loss of their last 10. But since then, the veteran forward has turned it around and then some. He owns a team-best +13.8 net rating during the streak, and he has hit 46.8% of his threes over that span. Donovan Mitchell and Raul Neto have also both been hot during the streak, shooting 50% from outside over these four games.

 

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

The downside of the Jazz spending the week blowing out lottery teams is that they never really had much of a need to dig deep into the playbook. Most of their scoring since the last SC7 “Playbook” section came just in the regular flow of the offense. However, they did find some opportunities to attack bad defenders by adding a single pass to some of their most basic actions. 

For example, watch how much difficulty DeAndre Ayton and Richaun Holmes have guarding the pick-and-roll when the Jazz add one simple pass to the action.

These are both very simple plays: just a high pick-and-roll to the middle. But because the Phoenix bigs are playing way back in both cases, the Jazz use a simple pass across the top to get them out of Derrick Favors’ roll path. Crowder and Mitchell attack the seam on the 45-degree angle, and force the “containing” big to do something other than contain. So instead of a pick-and-roll, these plays are pick-pass-and-roll plays, and Utah is using them a lot. It allows Favors (and Gobert) to roll into a conflicted help defender instead of rolling into a wall.

Here’s another example of adding a single pass to one of Utah’s pet plays. We’ll call this one “Spain plus one.”

The Spain P&R is what you see at the beginning of the play here: a high P&R for Ricky Rubio, but with a shooter like Korver (in this case) or Ingles simultaneously setting a backscreen on the big. The shooter pops, the screener rolls, and the guard drives, and because of all of those options, teams usually get something out of Spain P&R.

A clever way of stopping Spain has crept across the league, and rookie Elie Okobo tries it here. The best way to stop this play is for the guard in back to pick up the ball and let the ball handler’s man slide over to pick up the shooter while the big works through the screen to stay with his man. The Jazz guard Spain this way. Okobo recognizes the play and correctly steps over to pick Rubio up, but what the Jazz are banking on is that Jimmer Fredette, in just his second game back in the NBA, won’t have picked this tactic up yet and won’t know he’s suppose to switch out to Korver.

They were right: he hasn’t. In fact, you can see Korver recognize Jimmer’s confusion and cut to the wing early. As soon as he realizes that Fredette plans to follow Rubio, he doesn’t even bother setting the backscreen but instead darts to an open spot on the wing. Jimmer gets so lost that eventually he is stuck on the wrong side of Ekpe Udoh’s roll. There’s no way he’s going to get back to Korver in time, so Georges Niang’s guy slides over to help, and that’s where the simple pass-off leads to a wide open three.

(Tangentially, this might be part of why the Jazz appeared confused at the adoration Fredette got from the Utah fan base. Jimmer’s college years will always be a special memory to his fans in the Beehive, and I’m sure on a level, the players understood that. But the Jazz had just spent the evening attacking the defensively unaware guard, so it must have been a little odd for them to hear such boisterous cheers directed at a player they had targeted and, if we’re honest, kind of embarrassed. The Jazz were +25 in the 14 minutes Jimmer played, largely because of plays like this where they went right at him.)

The week was full of plays like these ones: the simplest of actions deployed with an extra pass to force bad defenders into making the wrong decision.

 

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

Jazz 125, Suns 92: Rudy Gobert

Gobert scored a season-high 27 (on just 11 shots), added his 59th double-double of the season (10 boards), and while he was at it used this game to set the all-time record2 for dunks in a season. Not bad, right? Just as importantly, the Suns wanted nothing to do with Gobert when he was in the defensive paint. The visitors shot just 29 percent at the rim with Stifle around, and he just got whatever he wanted all game on offense. Ricky Rubio started the game with energy when others seemed to be lacking and finished with 18 points, while Favors had another great game with 18-8-5.

Jazz 115, Lakers 100: Joe Ingles

The crowd’s chant of “We want Joe!” is probably a good hint that Ingles finished with the narrative edge on Game Ball. He was also really important from a basketball perspective, and the reasons overlapped. The night was set aside to advance Autism-related causes, a chance for the Ingles family to share their journey with the Jazz community to raise awareness. So Joe, with his two-year-old son Jacob’s name etched into his sneakers, had delivered a huge and personal assist before the clock started at the arena. Then he went and collected 14 more assists during game play, a Jazz season high. Vivint had pledged $5,000 to the cause for each of Ingles’ first five assists, and he fulfilled that quota in the game’s first 10 minutes. He narrowly missed what would have been the first regular season Jazz triple-double in 11 years — he had 11 points and nine rebounds to go with those 14 dimes — which is why the fans wanted him back in the game late. Gobert (22 & 11, three blocks) and Favors (20 points, 9-for-13) dominated the paint again, but this game had Ingles stamp on it, both inside the 94-by-50 rectangle and out.

Jazz 128, Wizards 124: Donovan Mitchell

Jae Crowder was sneaky great on defense while also hitting shots, and Joe Ingles was a real candidate. Ingles had his second straight double-digit assist night (10) to go with 18 points and a lot of fun chatter, including after he drew a key offensive foul late in the game. But 35-5-5 should make this pretty easy. And even though Mitchell did have some struggles early in the fourth quarter, he bounced back to finish off the Wiz, and still managed to get his 35 points on just 23 shots. Gobert (13 & 17) sealed the deal with a late block and Rubio (17 points) was aggressive throughout.

 

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

Six games left and the playoff race is taking shape.

The field is set: eight teams are in, with only positioning still up for grabs.

Houston’s division title will make it hard for the Jazz to move up past No. 4, even if the Rockets slip. At this point, Utah’s best chance at homecourt advantage in the first round is by overtaking Portland, who would need to lose at least two more. Their Friday game at Denver is their only projected loss, but they have three other games — at Minnesota, at the Lakers and home against Denver — that are basically toss-ups, per FiveThirtyEight.com.

On the other side, since Utah owns the tiebreaker over the Clippers, they’d have to lose twice before they were at risk of slipping past fifth.

So more likely than not, the Jazz will find themselves in the 4-vs.-5 matchup for the third straight year. Still to be determined: who they’ll face and where they’ll start.

 

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

The Jazz play six of their next eight at home, starting with three lottery teams visiting this week. 

Monday: Hornets at Utah, 7:00 p.m. MT 

  • State of the Hornets: Charlotte had four impressive wins in a row before starting their 4-game Western swing. But they’re 0-2 on this trip after a 47-point drubbing by the Warriors, and now head to Utah on a back-to-back as they cling to faint playoff hopes.
  • Jazz-Hornets: Mitchell’s 30 and a 20-and-17 night from Gobert helped Utah edge the Hornets back in November, 118-111.
  • Key for the Jazz: Pick-and-roll defense. Kemba Walker uses more possessions as the P&R ball handler than anybody else in the league, and he and Damian Lillard are the most efficient by far of the volume guys in that category.

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

  • State of the Suns: Igor Kokoskov’s new team had a fun little 7-4 stretch where they got to play spoiler, but now they’ve lost six straight.
  • Jazz-Suns: Utah has won all three matchups so far, by margins of 28, 17 and 33. Although last week’s contest injected some drama into Wednesday’s series finale, as the Jazz seemed to take exception with Devin Booker’s attempt to make history at their expense. 
  • Key for the Jazz: Non-Booker Suns scored just 33 on 12-of-42 shooting last week, which tells you that Utah’s game plan broadly worked. That said, they’ll also want to make sure he doesn’t drop another 59.

Friday: Sacramento at Utah, 7:00 p.m. MT

  • State of the Kings: Sacramento had lost seven of 11, including a loss in Houston on Saturday that ended their playoff hopes. But that doesn’t mean they’re not still playing hard; in fact, in their next time out after elimination, they beat the Spurs in San Antonio. 
  • Jazz-Kings: The Jazz are 2-1 against the Kings so far, having won both the road games and lost the previous home matchup during their November malaise. 
  • Key for the Jazz: Control the game. Sacramento is a high-paced team (second in the league) that commits and forces a lot of turnovers. 

Sunday: Utah at L.A. Lakers, 7:30 p.m. MT

  • State of the Lakers: LeBron James has been shut down for the rest of the season, which tells you what you need to know about the state of the Lakers. They have won four of five, though — the lone loss coming to the Jazz. 
  • Jazz-Lakers: Utah lost during a November visit to Staples, but has since beat the Lakers twice at home, including last week’s wire-to-wire win. Overall, Utah has won 13 of 15 against L.A.
  • Key for the Jazz: The Lakers were actually just 28-27 with LeBron this season — but so far they’re 7-15 without him. And since a handful of other rotation players may also miss that game, it’s absolutely a must-win for Utah.

 

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

Nothing deserves to be memorialized in this space more than the biggest non-basketball story of the week intersecting with the actual game — even in a week when Mitchell got his own pedestrian bridge named after him.

Ingles and his family made what must have been a very complex and challenging decision to share their journey with Jazz fans, but then took it a step further by actually going front-foot with it to create some awareness and help destigmatize autism spectrum disorder. Then he actually took his crusade onto the court, literally using basketball (via an assist challenge from the Jazz’s arena sponsor, Vivint) to raise money for autism-related causes. Then, awash in the glow of a near-triple double on a night his performance was dedicated to his sweet son Jacob, Ingles got the water bottle treatment and just sat there and absorbed it like a champ while sporting his trademark smirk.


That will do it this week, the penultimate Salt City Seven of the season. Join us next Monday as we tee up the final regular season games of 2018-19.

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

Dan Clayton , 2019-03-25 21:01:26
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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.

“That loss was a little slap in the face — a little wake-up call.”

-Jazz center Rudy Gobert, to KSL’s Ryan Miller, about Utah’s 117-114 loss to the Hawks.

While the Jazz’s trip to Atlanta was their only misstep in their last seven games, it was certainly a bad time to drop a game to a lottery-bound opponent.

Atlanta has been playing well enough that “slap in the face” might be putting it harshly. Rookie Trae Young has had a late-season awakening and has helped the Hawks to four wins in their last seven games, including another clutch thriller against Philadelphia on Saturday. On top of their improved play, the Jazz also had the misfortune of playing them on the second night of a back-to-back.

That said, “wake-up call” is apt. With 10 games remaining — nine now, after the Jazz followed up that loss with a throttling of the Chicago Bulls — it was a good reminder that games don’t win themselves, and that the focus needs to be there in each of these games down the stretch.

“Now we have to go home and get ready for the next one, with the same mindset every night,” Gobert said after Saturday’s win.

Luckily for the Jazz, they’re not the only ones to stumble in a game they were expected to win. Just in March alone, nearly every western playoff team has slipped up:

  • The Warriors lost at home to the hapless Suns, then trailed by as many as 43 against the Mavs on the way to another loss.
  • Like the Jazz, the Nuggets slipped up at home to New Orleans.
  • Houston dropped an overtime decision in Memphis after trailing for most of the night.
  • Portland has charged up the standings with a 12-4 surge, but one of those four losses: Memphis.
  • OKC has had an uneven month, including a loss at Minnesota and another at home to Miami — a team technically playoff-bound at the moment, but far from a sure bet to make it.
  • The same Heat ended the Spurs’ 9-game winning streak.

The only western playoff team who hasn’t fallen to a sub-.500 team this month: the surging Clippers, winners in 10 of their 11 March matchups.

None of that lets the Jazz off the hook: the loss was still a bad one, and not just because it came at the hands of the now 26-48 Hawks. Utah led by eight with 5:00 to go, but fell apart with poor offensive execution and ragged defense. Atlanta made a point of putting Jae Crowder in pick-and-roll defense so that Gobert wasn’t in position to stop Young. And on the other end, missed jumpers and turnovers kept them from manufacturing enough points to hold off the run.

When the standings are final on April 10, THOSE are the games that the Jazz will rue the most — not just the random off nights or the surprise defeats to bad teams, but the leads they gave away in the final minutes of games.

With that in mind, here (in chronological order) are my nominees for the five losses the Jazz will regret the most if a single game costs them a preferred playoff seeding:

Warriors 124, Jazz 123 (10/19). Yes, games in October count just as heavily as games in March. The Jazz coughed up a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter when Golden State went on a 13-0 run. Then Utah got a 5-point lead back with three minutes to play, but gave up consecutive threes. You might remember this for the Jonas Jerebko buzzer tip-in, but it never should have been close enough for Jerebko to flip home the winner.

Heat 102, Jazz 100 (12/2). Utah’s big lead of 19 happened in the first quarter, but they let a Heat team without Goran Dragic or Tyler Johnson erase it, leading to a close finish. Utah came up empty on its last three possessions.

Thunder 148, Jazz 147 (2/22). This one stings doubly because it could have been an L for their conference and division rivals. Utah led this one by 10 in the fourth quarter, by seven with 2:25 left, and also led for most of the two overtime periods.

Pelicans 115, Jazz 112 (3/4). The Jazz held a 14-point lead several minutes into the fourth, then bore the brunt of a 22-2 run by the visiting Pelicans. All while Anthony Davis sat. Oof.

And yes, this week’s stumble makes the list.

Hawks 115, Jazz 112 (3/21). The particularly painful part of this one is that Utah positively dominated during a 28-8 second-half run. So it’s not that it was the Hawks; it’s that the Jazz appeared to have this one sewn up, before Young and the Hawks uncorked a 9-0 run in a matter of less than two minutes.

All of those losses were decided by one-possession margins. Utah has actually played only seven games decided by three points of fewer — these five and two others. They’re also the only team in the league that hasn’t yet won a single game of that ilk: 0-7. The Jazz are an odd contradiction in that way: they own the league’s sixth-best clutch net rating, and yet the worst record in single-possession outcomes.

Yet the reason these losses will haunt the Jazz the most when playoff seedings are set isn’t because they were close losses — it’s because they shouldn’t have been close at all. 

So now, with nine games left, they need to heed the wake-up call to which Gobert alluded.

 

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

16+

OK, that’s enough talk about the lone blemish to Utah’s otherwise dominant week. They went 3-1 since our last SC7, and they dominated so completely in the other three that even counting the Atlanta game, they still outscored opponents by 70 points this week — 17.5 per game. In New York, they picked up their fifth straight victory by 16 or more, matching last March’s franchise record for consecutive blowouts.

+9.6

And that’s nothing new: Utah actually has the best Net Rating in the league over the past 15 games at +9.6, a full point better than the next best team (Houston).

4-0

How much did the Jazz dominate in Chicago on Saturday? During the first half of the rout, the Bulls only had one run of more than two consecutive points. That came with 1:24 left in the half when Robin Lopez’s layup gave them four straight points. But by then, Utah was already up by 38.

27.8%

Here’s a weird one: even though the Jazz have been winning over the past two weeks, they’ve been doing so despite some rough outside shooting from even wide open guys. Over that stretch, Crowder is shooting 25 percent and Ricky Rubio 27.3 percent on wide open threes (closest defender six feet away or farther). But they’re not the only volume shooters struggling; Kyle Korver — yes, Korver — is shooting 27.8 percent while wide open. It’s only an 8-game sample, but an anomaly worth noting.

Donovan Mitchell is hitting 56 percent of his wide open threes over the same stretch.

 

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

The NBA is a funny place: Teams figure out a new way to attack defenses, and it quickly spreads. But even while it’s spreading, the same teams and coaches are hard at work devising strategies to neuter it. Then those defensive strategies spread, so people start working on ways to attack those. Round and round we go, a constant evolution of the game as smart people tinker with new approaches in a copycat league.

For example, off-ball staggered screens have become much more of a staple for teams, particularly those with good shooters. They’ll have a reliable catch-and-shoot guy run off a couple of consecutive screens, then catch the ball and either let it fire, or zip a pass to the inside of one of the screeners’ men stepped out on him. The Jazz do this a lot — in fact, this week a play caught my eye where they ran a TRIPLE pindown for Korver. He came off three screens, creating such a panic that Joe Ingles was left wide open.

One way teams have been fighting this is by “icing” the first pick, the same way they might for a ball screen. “Ice” occurs when a ball handler’s man tries to force the ball handler away from the screen by stepping up to the level of the screener. We’ve talked about icing in this space before, but now we’re seeing it a lot more as an off-ball defensive choice, designed to keep a player like Korver or Mitchell from using the staggered screens to begin with.

And, lo and behold, here’s the counter to this rapidly spreading counter.

Notice how Mitchell sees the ice coming, so he walks his defender up behind Derrick Favors, and then he goes under the staggered screens instead. Damyean Dotson is now trailing behind Mitchell, and DeAndre Jordan has no clue what to do. So Mitchell just waltzes into an open 18-footer.

Korver often does the same thing, only on this next play, he puts a little wrinkle on it. He does the same thing by taking Ryan Arcidiacono up behind Crowder and curling underneath that first screen. But then he snakes back over the second screen to catch the pass. By zig-zagging his path to the ball, he has kept Arcidiacono in the rear view mirror, and so the defense caves in response to his drive, leaving Crowder free.

The chess match continues. Right now, some assistant coach or video tech somewhere is thinking about the way to defend this wrinkle, and then someone else will brainstorm a way to attack that defensive approach. And on and on.

 

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

Jazz 116, Wizards 95: Joe Ingles

During an early stretch in which Ingles hit five of his six shots, he was busy telling the Wizards all about it. But just as important as his scheme-busting threes and his chatty demeanor was his defense. Ingles was primarily responsible for holding the red hot Bradley Beal in check. Beal was coming off consecutive 40-point games, but in the 32 possessions that he was primarily guarded by Ingles, the star guard shot just 2-for-6, and the Wiz’s ORtg on those possessions was a meager 100. Meanwhile, Ingles ended the game with 16 points (12 from deep) and four assists. Ricky Rubio gets an honorable mention for his 10 assists, four steals and 4-for-7 shooting, and Jae Crowder had 18 off the bench. Plus, Gobert and Mitchell did their usual things.

Jazz 137, Knicks 116: Donovan Mitchell

With a combination of gravity-defying drives and feathery jumpers, Mitchell wound up with what felt like an effortless 30 points in the win. That included 4-for-4 shooting for 10 points during a 43-20 run spanning the first and second quarters. Gobert was phenomenal defensively throughout the game and didn’t miss a shot, but the kid from New York ran away with this one.

Jazz 114, Bulls 83: Rudy Gobert

Gobert happened to have the most solid line of the game: 21 points, 14 boards and four blocks, on 9-for-11 shooting. But even before he piled up those impressive numbers, he was the player who visibly, palpably impacted the game the most. The poor young Bulls were just terrified of him, and with good reason: they shot just 2-for-7 at the rim with him around. Rubio got the Jazz off to a good start, and Raul Neto was once again a nice spark off the bench.

 

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

The bad news: the Jazz no longer own the easiest remaining schedule of Western Conference playoff hopefuls. The good news is that the team that does is currently on Utah’s back.

Note: The Clippers took Boston’s spot in the top 10, which is why Houston, Utah and GSW all saw a game added to that category in the top bar graph.

With the way L.A. is trending, that Jazz-Clippers season finale is looking more and more interesting.

And because of their 0-4 record against OKC, the Jazz need the Thunder to lose if they’re going to climb the standings at all. OKC has a home-heavy close, but only Denver has more than the Thunder’s four remaining games vs. top-10 teams.

There are no head-to-head matchups involving this group in the next three nights, and then all hell will break loose. The last 14 nights of the season will feature 16 games between two of these teams — 11 if we exclude Sacramento, whose playoff hopes are still alive only in the most technical sense.

 

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

The Jazz play six of their next eight at home, starting with three lottery teams visiting this week. 

Monday: Phoenix at Utah, 7:00 p.m. MT 

  • State of the Suns: After going winless for 17 straight games, the Suns are basically playing .500 ball (6-7) over the last month, including wins over the Bucks and Warriors..
  • Jazz-Suns: The Jazz have beat Igor Kokoskov’s team twice already, by 28 and 17 points. Now they’ll finish the season series by facing them twice in 10 days.
  • Key for the Jazz: Several key Suns will be out, so as long as the Jazz can control tempo, they should be in good shape. Phoenix has the third worst halfcourt offense in the league.

Wednesday: L.A. Lakers at Utah, 8:30 p.m. MT

  • State of the Lakers: L.A. was officially eliminated from playoff consideration. They’re 26-27 in games LeBron James has played, but the real story might be how they have fallen apart (4-14) since the trade deadline failed to deliver them the help LeBron wanted.
  • Jazz-Lakers: The Lakers won a Black Friday tilt in a game where the Jazz couldn’t score, and then the Jazz got payback with an 18-point January win in one of the 20 games LeBron missed. 
  • Key for the Jazz: This is going to be a battle for the rim. The Lakers lead the league in getting shots at the rim, and they’re top five at converting them. On the flip side, Utah’s defense is elite both at limiting rim attempts (5th) and turning them into misses (3rd).

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

  • State of the Wiz: Washington has lost four straight and is 6-12 in its last 18, but Beal is playing out of his mind. His averages are 29-5-7 over those same 18 contests. 
  • Jazz-Wiz: Utah just laid a 19-point beatdown on the Wizards last week in Washington, and overall have won six straight contests against Washington. 
  • Key for the Jazz: Stopping Washington these days is all about stopping Beal, which the Jazz did well last week. If Ingles & crew can replicate that defensive performance against the star guard, the Wiz will struggle to find points.

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

Let’s end with something that looks like an exciting play, but is really an allegory for having five engaged, connected guys on the court.

On the surface, this is just an authoritative swat leading to a fun fastbreak dunk. But this play doesn’t unfold this way unless all five guys are playing hard and with a certain mental velocity.

If Rubio doesn’t get back defensively and cut off the paint with good positioning, then Kris Dunn probably scores or gets fouled, but he certainly wouldn’t have had to veer left, right into Gobert’s waiting wingspan. Then Gobert blocks it, but also keeps it in play. Crowder tracks down the rebound, but also has the presence of mind to flip it to Ingles behind his back. If he had just grabbed it (or let Ingles grab it), then the Jazz never would have gotten such a headstart in transition. Then Ingles runs hard and commits the defender, and all the while Mitchell is sprinting toward a highlight-reel finish.

You might not see a better example of team play on both ends in eight seconds like that all season. If any of those guys had been complaining to a ref, distracted by someone in the crowd, or just 10% less mentally engaged in the play, the outcome would have been different. They might have still scored, but it wouldn’t have looked quite like this.

Whenever fans start talking themselves into players who don’t play hard all the time with lines like, “It’ll be fine, the other guys will cover for them,” I think of plays like this. When you have five guys who are focused, thinking fast, playing hard and connected to each other, plays like this can happen. If you have four guys like that and a fifth who’s not quite 100% into the game, this play doesn’t happen.


That will do it this week. Nine games to go!

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

Dan Clayton , 2019-03-18 21:28:38
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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.

The Jazz are getting back to their defensive identity, and their star sophomore has a theory as to why: the team’s big men Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors are playing phenomenally well.

“You start to get teams flustered a little bit… We were pursuing and pursuing, and we just kept pushing. That’s what you want: you want to be able to just kind of aggravate teams. It’s so easy when you’ve got big fella down there doing what he does and Fav is playing out of this world.”

-Donovan Mitchell, via the Salt Lake Tribune’s Twitter feed, on how Utah has been frustrating teams on the defensive end

Over the past 11 games, Utah’s defense has been the best in the league. They’ve been getting under opponents’ skin, protecting the rim, blocking shots and closing out the possession with an elite rebound rate. It’s no coincidence that over that same 11-game stretch, only one team — the red hot Houston Rockets — have won more games than Utah’s eight1. He has blocked 32 shots over that stretch — Utah leads the league with a 7.5-percent block percentage over that span — and his averages last week of 17 points and 16 rebounds earned him his first ever Western Conference Player of the Week award.

And yet, Gobert’s on-court defensive rating over the last 11 still isn’t the best on the team. It’s not even the second best. Or the third best. It’s… *gulp*… the worst.

There’s obviously a ton of context behind that number. Gobert has had to guard Anthony Davis, Steven Adams, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Karl-Anthony Towns. Jonas Valanciunas gives Gobert some problems because he can deploy his strength down low and also use his skill out in space. The Stifle Tower has also had to play against small-ball lineups (in the Phoenix and LAC games, for example) that force him to do different things.

So there are plenty of reasons why his D-rating over this 11-game slice isn’t really alarming at all. But it is noticeable to see him come in dead last over a stretch that is equal to an eighth of the season. And it underscores how lucky the Jazz are to have another starter-caliber center to lean on for whatever they need on a given night.

Enter Favors.

“Fav is a different animal right now,” Mitchell told the Trib earlier on in a separate conversation. “He’s been doing his thing — he’s rebounding, he’s been running the floor, getting dunks. That rubs off on everybody else.”

Favors is averaging 14 and 9 over the last 11 outings, along with two blocks and a rotation-best D-rating of 90.3. It’s not like this is the first time Favors has put up that type of raw output — after all, he averaged 15 and 8 over a three-year span after he became the full-time starter. But he’s never impacted the game quite as much as he is right now.

In fact, here’s a finding that makes absolutely no sense, but is true nonetheless: over this 8-3 stretch, Utah is -5.7 per 100 possessions when Favors and Gobert play together, +0.9 when Gobert plays without Favors… and +22.9 when Favors plays without Gobert.

So Favors is doing more than just complementing Gobert over this stretch — he’s actually outplaying him, at least on macro terms.

If we narrow the sample to just the last week, Gobert’s (+16.0) and Favors’ (+17.2) solo impact are much closer, but you still get the picture here. Gobert is doing amazing things, garnering recognition and striking fear into the hearts of NBA players everywhere… and yet Favors may quietly be the real catalyst behind this recent surge.

Most general managers would sacrifice a limb to get one defensive anchor of that level. Utah has two, and they’ve gotten their club back to playing elite defense just in time for the playoffs.Their shot defense has been superb over the last week because they’ve been able to force teams to take the shots they want to allow.

Overall, Utah is back in the top three for their season-long defensive rating, and it seems extremely unlikely that they’ll fall out of that range, especially given the fact that their average remaining opponent record is .400. The Jazz need to live in that top-3 territory, as that’s their best shot to win ball games. That’s even more true heading into the playoffs, especially as injury luck has dealt another blow to one of their primary off-the-bounce creators. (We’ll talk more about that in the numbers section.)

 

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

664

At least for now, that’s where Dante Exum’s season minute total will be stuck. Exum is yet again unavailable due to rotten injury luck — this time in the form of a partial tear in his right patellar tendon. That’s a different knee than the one that was reconstructed after an ACL tear that followed Exum’s rookie season, but it marks the fourth major injury of his career: the left ACL, the shoulder dislocation from last year, the ankle injury and bone bruise that interrupted maybe his best stretch as a pro so far, and now this.

It’s frustrating. No doubt about it. But if you’re frustrated, imagine how upset Exum must be. That’s why there’s a wrong way and a right way to respond to player injuries. Don’t blame the player. Don’t declare without any medical knowledge that he’s done. Basically, just don’t be a jerk. NBA players aren’t Game of Thrones characters, imaginary beings that exist solely for you to speculate about and judge. They’re human beings, and at the core of this really crummy news is a 23-year-old kid who wishes he could play basketball. If you’re looking for the right way to respond on a human level, Quin SnyderFavors and especially Kyle Korver all nailed it with their heartfelt and empathetic reactions.

18%

Exum’s absence is going to put even more pressure on starting guard Ricky Rubio to work his way back into some kind of rhythm. And Rubio has made just 10 of his last 55 shots (18%), including four of his last 18 from three (22%).

Both Rubio and Raul Neto are smart and resourceful playmakers in pick-and-roll situations, but neither can attack switches or puncture the defense quite like Exum does. Against switching defenses that the Jazz will undoubtedly see in the playoffs, Exum and Mitchell are the only two Jazz men capable of beating most switches 1-on-1. Rubio and Neto usually need a pick in order to be able to break the paint, and the two of them are really going to need to be able to put pressure on the defense if Utah is going to survive in the playoffs with Mitchell as their lone isolation threat.

That’s why I said last week that I felt like the Jazz would have a hard time advancing without Exum. The caveat to that is that Rubio could help Utah by suddenly channeling the version of himself that carved up defenses and knocked down shots over the latter half of the 2017-18 season. Mitchell will no doubt continue to pile on points, but defenses will pressure him with the ball if nobody else can flatten the defense on their own. And that means Rubio, especially, is going to have to force defenses to play him honestly by hitting shots.

 

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

Saturday’s game against Brooklyn featured numerous highlight-reel plays, but it also featured a lot of smart offense where the Jazz used Brooklyn’s defensive schemes against them. Here are two quick examples.

This gets Favors a bucket because of his great seal and a smart read by Mitchell, but it’s actually designed for Joe Ingles. Take a look.

As the Jazz sometimes do against non-shooting threats, Brooklyn was aggressive about having Jarrett Allen not guard Gobert. Look at how much room Allen leaves him. So the Jazz called plays with Gobert setting off-ball screens as a way to punish that approach. After all, if Allen is sagging off him, then he’s not in position to help on a screen! The Warriors do this often when teams leave Draymond Green, having him set a screen for Steph Curry while the D has no big man to show.

The play starts with a UCLA screen, a pick set by a guard for a big man coming across the paint. This action should be familiar to fans of the Stockton-to-Malone era, as the Jazz used that action thousands of times to get Malone deep post position. But based Mitchell’s position at the top of the key and the rest of the play action, it’s obvious that this is actually for Joe. The idea here is that Ingles’ man will help protect the bucket, and therefore be late to follow Joe to the perimeter when he uses the subsequent pindown from Gobert. And since Allen is playing off Gobert, he won’t be in a position to help, resulting in an open Ingles three. Watch the play again and this time just keep an eye on Ingles; this is clearly a ploy to turn the Nets’ sagging defense into an open Joe jumper. 

But instead, Ingles’ guy doesn’t help over the top of the UCLA screen, and Favors does a good job keeping his own guy on his back. Mitchell recognizes this and zips the ball directly to Favors. This was a great play design, great execution by all four guys involved in the action, and a great read by Mitchell to short-circuit the play when he saw a better outcome develop.

Then there was this play, where the Jazz turned Brooklyn’s zone defense against them.

Positioning is key when attacking the zone, so Mitchell starts right between the two high defenders, and Royce O’Neale positions himself at the angle right, exactly where he knows he’ll pull over one of those high defenders. Gobert screens the other one, and just like that, Mitchell is open. That’s all it took: good initial spacing, one pass to the wing, and one well-timed screen.

Whatever Brooklyn tried, Utah was ready with something in the playbook that would turn the scheme against itself. Whether punishing the sagging big with layered actions or shifting the zone with smart space-and-pass offense, Utah was ready.

 

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

Jazz 114, Suns 97: Rudy Gobert

Poor DeAndre Ayton just had no idea what to do with either one of Favors and Gobert, let alone both. Game ball could have gone to either one, or to Mitchell for his 24 and for pouring in bunch late to seal things. And Gobert’s case was that monster line — 18 & 20! — plus the fact that Suns players shot 1-for-7 combined when Gobert was primarily guarding them. I just thought this was such a unique game for Favors. He had 18-7-7, and per Inpredictable, he and Ingles had the biggest impact on the Jazz’s odds of winning. This is a little bit of narrative/feel over raw production (Gobert was probably the game MVP, if we’re honest), but that’s allowed sometimes.

Jazz 120, Wolves 100: Donovan Mitchell

When the Jazz pulled away with a 20-8 run, Mitchell scored nine of those dagger points, including a clinching three and an exclamation point dunk. But there were a lot of candidates here. Favors and Crowder had it all night. Gobert shut down KAT and ultimately fouled him out. Ingles and Rubio each had eight assists. Ultimately though, giving this one to Don spreads out the love among the three guys who were, honestly, the Jazz MVPs this week.

Jazz 114, Nets 98: Rudy Gobert

Gobert simply dominated. It was never close after Gobert powered a 27-2 run by simply deciding he wouldn’t allow the visiting Nets to score. He also contributed 23 points, 17 boards and three blocks. Mitchell hit the dagger (see above) and had a great all-around game, and Favors and Jae Crowder were both timely contributors. But no need to overcomplicate this one.

 

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

We’re coming right down to it.

Jazz are near the back of the pack, but most of their remaining schedule is against lotto teams.

OKC and Denver play literally half of their remaining games against elite teams. For Denver, that means that catching GSW (with a cushy schedule) is probably a long shot, and they need to watch for Houston creeping up. 

After that, the West once again has that anything-can-happen feel to it. Three through eight are separated by four in the L column.

But just be realistic about those gaps: these teams are mostly winning right now. In fact, no Western playoff team lost at all last week unless it was to another playoff team.

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

Just like last week, the Jazz have a 4-in-6-nights stretch on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. 

Monday: Utah at Washington, 5:00 p.m. MT 

  • State of the Wiz: Add this to the list of games where the Jazz get a lotto team right when they’re starting to play well. The Wizards were 3-1 last week, which helped Bradley Beal (consecutive 40+ games) win Player of the Week out east.
  • Jazz-Wiz: How is it possible that the Jazz haven’t faced the Wiz yet? They’ll see each other in the capital on Monday, and then 11 days later the rematch is slated for Salt Lake.
  • Key for the Jazz: Defend the 3-point line. Beal had 16 threes in the last two games combined, and the Wiz also have Trevor Ariza as a spot-up threat and even Bobby Portis as a pick-and-pop big. Without some outlier-type shooting from those guys, Utah should be able to dictate.

Wednesday: Utah at New York, 5:30 p.m. MT

  • State of the Knicks: The Knicks are… bad. They’ve had losing streaks this season of 5, 6, 5, 8, 18 and 8. That said, they occasionally catch lightning in a bottle. Their last win, after all came at LeBron James’ expense.
  • Jazz-Knicks: Utah dealt the Knicks a 32-point smackdown, behind a 25-and-16 night from Gobert and 13 assists from (shed a tear) Exum. 
  • Key for the Jazz: Several player are gone from that December tilt, including Tim Hardaway Jr. who led the Jazz in scoring. If the Jazz keep playing defense the way they have been, they’ll be in good shape. But the Knicks have some streaky guys who will get going if Utah treats this as a get-off-the-bus-and-win game.

Thursday: Utah at Atlanta, 7:30 p.m. MT

  • State of the Hawks: The Hawks try hard most nights, and have some intriguing young pieces. But they don’t have the talent up and down their roster to win consistently. They have lost five of seven. 
  • Jazz-Hawks: The Hawks memorably swept the Jazz last season, and Ricky Rubio made sure they wouldn’t this time around by dropping 22 points and 11 assists in the lone meeting between the teams in February.. 
  • Key for the Jazz: Atlanta is third in the league in creating rim attempts, and fifth at finding threes. They just don’t usually make enough of them. Trae Young in particular is a high-variance guy. He has shot under 25 percent from three 29 times, and the Hawks are 4-25 in those games.

Saturday: Utah at Chicago, 6:00 p.m. MT

  • State of the Bulls: The Bulls had a nice mini-surge after the trade deadline brought them Otto Porter Jr., winning six of nine. Since then, they’ve come back down to earth with a 1-7 stretch.
  • Jazz-Bulls: The Jazz needed a late run and 34-6-6 from Mitchell to pull away from the Bulls on January 12. Now, they’ll face a new-look Chicago club that includes Porter, a rumored Jazz target.
  • Key for the Jazz: It could be that the NBA just needed some time to adjust to Porter in red: during their post-deadline spurt, he averaged 20-and-6 on 52 percent shooting. Since then, he’s 15-and-5 on 43 percent. In other words: the Jazz need to stop Otto.

 

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

After a week that included some tense moments, inappropriate behavior and awkward follow-up conversation, it was nice to end it on a note of unity.


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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Utah Jazz vs. Oklahoma City Thunder: Opponent Game Thread Highlights

moni , 2019-03-12 03:53:35
Utah Jazz Tickets

selddir_
Time to go into Mormon City and teach those lads a lesson one more time 💪😤👌

payto360
Fuck the Jazz fans. That is all.

-JustARedHerring
Can we make sure the Refs are not Morman this time in Utah?

Khalems
gobert unstoppable

positivevibegun
bruh the jazz are gonna get swept, grab a broom

SmileyCotton
Why does the Jazz’s coach always look like he sells cocaine on the side.

Hineschr
Like this exum guy only likable player on the jazz

jll986
Exum is a raw athletic wing who can’t shoot. He is therefore technically our player.

Anti_Thon
Mormonts booing Russ smh

jll986
Is Utah like super religious and white? Idk all these state stereotypes lol

tf_is_dis
this some ugly basketball

swerve421
Jazz fans release all their pent up racism at Russ every time he plays them

Grolschyy
I mean I’m a white Australian. But god damn Utah is so white.


idunthavauniqueuza
God Utah fans are so annoying

Hammyboi230
Gobert looks like a fish head on a giant pogo stick

Qatar_stadium_worker
Is exum playing drunk or something

throw3away3791
Man i’m starting to feel bad for the kid…

thebestonenz
EXUM FOR THUNDER PLAYER OF THE GAME

Khalems
Idgaf if we finish 4th seed or 5th seed. If we sweep the Jazz tonight i’m good. Fuck that team and their salty ass fans.

jwestbrook95
These Jazz commentators are surprisingly decent

Khalems
I ain’t seen 1 brotha in this jazz crowd lmao.

Alex_A3nes
Sounds about white

Khalems
Please sweep this toxic ass crowd.

jll986
Yo can someone from America explain the Utah white Mormon thing i don’t get it???

BurnerPhoneShorty
lmao these dumb fuck mormons really want a travel called on that


Khalems
FUCK JAZZ FUCK INGLES

_wsmfp_
God Jazz fans are insufferable cucks

worddduppp
Fucking jazz fans bro so toxic

Alpha_Assassins
Its too early for Don to be getting superstar calls

idunthavauniqueuza
If these fans weren’t such cucks that ref would’ve called charge lmao he was scared of the reaction

throw3away3791
Get fucked you toby looking prick

jll986
Holy shit I’ve spotted a black dude. He’s wearing a thunder shirt lol

jwestbrook95
Jazz are really missing Melo in this one

Alpha_Assassins
Only reason why they won last season 🤷🏽‍♀️

jwestbrook95
Facts

12footjumpshot
This crowd is toxic

thebestonenz
Jazz fans are amongst the worst.

Alpha_Assassins
Last years success got them feelin themselves

thebestonenz
What success


Dhr7468
Lazy start to the half

HumanHitstick21
gobert is just a tall ass chris paul change my view

niles12
Get fucked you jInGlEd loser

AllCapsGoat
Gobert is such a little bitch

Rockstar408
Please just hold a lead ffs

selddir_
Quinn: “Jesus Christ when is he gonna take the timeout”
“the willpower on this guy”
“Surely after this possession”
“Fuck it I’ll call it for him”
4D chess Billy. Why use your own timeouts when you can get one from the other team.

selddir_
Jazz gonna have to change their magic undies after this collapse

yusbishyus
So Utah did all that and we gained a point that quarter. Whew lawd.

tf_is_dis
Jazz cheating, man. Our sides of the court been more slippery.

Dhr7468
MVP for the Jazz are the guys not mopping up the floor. We’re slipping all over the place.

Crazymonkey1256
The Mormons seem a little hyped up right now

_wsmfp_
“I’m gonna fuck my wives tonight!”

Crazymonkey1256
Hands up /


worddduppp
Bro if Mitchell wasnt on the fucking jazz id be a huge asss fan, still a great player tho

dogfan20
Jazz fans are so vitriolic.

12footjumpshot
This crowd is just septic

Caresell3s
FUCK THIS CROWD

worddduppp
Oh god these refs are fucking the jazz rn

Todemax
We are getting some lucky ass calls here not gonna lie

12footjumpshot
This crowd is just poisonous

goodboynomo
Fuck Utah

Crazymonkey1256
Their fans are just as bad as the warriors and lakers

revisioncloud
We’re getting Jingled as we speak smh


dogfan20
FUCK YOU THREE

tf_is_dis
that’s a big “fuck you” to the entire Jazz fanbase from Russ

yusbishyus
That is literally a lefuck you three

Kellykush13
HELL YEA FUCK UTAH

dogfan20
Mitchell is the opposite of clutch man

Anti_Thon
Jazz crowd so quiet. I fucking love it.

betoromo1
I CANT HEAR YOU, UTAH!!!

Khaledio
Fuck the jazz and the stupid fans

PhantomPlanet714
Props to The Jazz fans for being complete pricks and waking up the Beastbrook!

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

Dan Clayton , 2019-03-11 21:18:13
Utah Jazz Tickets

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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