Fixing The Bent, But Not Yet Broken Utah Jazz
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The Utah Jazz have lost three straight games. From 30,000 feet, three consecutive losses isn’t a big deal. With the exception of the Milwaukee Bucks, every team in the league has suffered through a three-game losing streak at some point this season.
However, losing to the San Antonio Spurs and the Phoenix Suns, two teams that won’t make the playoffs, and a loss to the Houston Rockets who play a frustrating style of basketball makes each loss feel more significant. Additionally, all of the losses came at home, putting the team’s struggles directly in the sightline of the fanbase.
I’ve written several times this season that the Jazz are one of the more momentum-driven teams in the league, for better or worse. As a result, the win some games they probably shouldn’t — see the four-game winning streak entering the All-Star break — and lose games they should probably win, evidenced by these recent losses to San Antonio and Phoenix.
The problem with momentum is it doesn’t provide a team with a consistent launch-point from which to begin every game. If the Jazz enter each game from a different starting point, heavily influenced their performance in either their last game or their last several games, they’re going to continue to be inconsistent. It makes both winning streaks and losing streaks feel like they’ll never end, which is a particular cause for concern currently riding three losses.
After the Rockets loss, the most common buzzword in the locker room was mindset. Both Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell spoke about the team’s mindset either defensively, or when stemming a poor stretch of play within a game.
I think the Jazz lacking a consistent mindset makes them particularly vulnerable to trap games, which could be the cause for losses to both the Spurs and Suns in the last week, and it makes the team’s struggles feel worse than they actually are.
Coming out of the All-Star break, riding the league’s longest winning streak, the Jazz entered the Spurs with a far too casual mindset. By the time San Antonio punched them in the mouth, they had no ability to bounce back and were run out of the building.
Against the Rockets, with the exception of a miserable third quarter, the Jazz played well and likely would have beaten a lesser team with an equal performance.
Enter the Suns, who are a lesser team than the Rockets and one the Jazz seemed to assume they would bounce back against to break their two-game losing streak. That assumption allowed the Jazz to play freely in the first quarter, building a 35-27 lead, and was equally responsible for watching that lead turn into a 62-62 tie at halftime, and a 20 point loss by games end.
The Jazz may have identified that their mindset is a major part of the team’s problems, but unfortunately, identifying the issue and solving it are two different steps. The Jazz may have done one, they certainly haven’t done the other.
The Jazz Aren’t Broken
A narrative has emerged that Mike D’Antoni’s small-ball lineup with the Rockets broke the Jazz.
First, with the exception of injuries, I don’t think teams break, especially teams with 36 wins at the All-Star break that are a lock to make the playoffs.
Certainly, teams have found a more effective approach to attacking Rudy Gobert and the Jazz defense and they have to counter that strategy, but nothing in the NBA is unfixable, especially with the talent the Jazz have both on the roster and within the coaching staff.
Second, the Rockets aren’t the first team to realize that pulling Gobert away from the rim is an effective strategy. Spreading the floor with a big man has long been the counteraction to negate Gobert’s impact.
However, the Suns didn’t blow the Jazz because Gobert had suddenly been pulled from the paint, or because Aaron Baynes caught fire from the three-point line and the Jazz couldn’t adjust. The Jazz were just bad defensively, even when the scheme was fine, and the offense didn’t help either.
In transition, even off of a made basket, the Jazz struggled to find their defensive assignment. Several times in the third quarter the Jazz would fail to put a body on Ricky Rubo coming down the floor, resulting in his patented midrange left elbow jumper, or a runout for an easy layup at the rim.
When the Suns did settle into a halfcourt set, Joe Ingles was either mismatched against the ultra-active Devin Booker, or the Jazz would lose sight of their perimeter assignment. With the exception of two made threes from Dario Saric, who has made just 31 percent of his three-point attempts this season, the Jazz defense wasn’t undone by five players standing at the perimeter. Often, one Jazz man would carelessly lose his assignment and blow up and entire defensive possession.
Offensively, the Jazz simply stopped passing the ball which led to 13 second-half turnovers. Though Donovan Mitchell was the Jazz best offensive weapon against Phoenix, finishing with 38 points on 11-19 shooting, his play in the quarter was one of the main catalysts for the Jazz loss. Mitchell shot just 1-5 in the quarter, often missing open shooters that were just one pass away in favor of a contested midrange jump shot.
The first time All-Star still appears to be figuring out when he needs to take over a game that is slipping away as a scorer, and when to do it as a playmaker. Mitchell chose wrong against the Suns in the third quarter, and the team was outscored by 10 points with him on the floor.
When teams go small against the Jazz, they seem to want to attack the paint believing there is no rim protector to stop them. Instead, teams swarm the Jazz ball-handler and force him into bad decisions in a crowd.
You can catch the rest of Ben Anderson’s breakdown of the Utah Jazz in the latest episode of the Jazz Notes podcast. Subscribe in Itunes to have the podcast delivered directly to your phone each time a new episode is posted.