Two months before earning their first playoff series victory in 10 years, the Jazz lost by 27 points to Minnesota at home last season.
They stopped just short of copying that strategy Monday, trailing by 26 in the third quarter before mildly rallying in a 109-98 defeat. Nothing resembling last April’s playoff breakthrough is in the forecast for this team, with center Rudy Gobert sidelined and a Jazz offense that’s incapable of compensating for his absence defensively.
A shockingly high percentage of the 17,236 fans at Vivint Smart Home Arena remained forgiving and stayed interested in this exercise. They deserved to be rewarded with more than 11 minutes of decent basketball, which is about all that rookie Donovan Mitchell and a random collection of teammates delivered in the end.
All their effort did was serve to indict the performance of the Jazz’s mainstays. “We can’t go out there and be lackadaisical and be sluggish and turn over the ball,” Rodney Hood said.
He left out missing a bunch of shots again, in a third home loss in four games. If the Jazz hoped to establish themselves as a playoff team in the Western Conference, they needed to maximize this home-heavy phase of the schedule. Instead, the opening stretch couldn’t have gone much worse for them, with four losses in 10 games at Vivint and Gobert’s prognosis of missing four weeks or more with a leg injury.
The Jazz (6-8) showed some toughness in wins over Denver, Oklahoma City and Portland, but those efforts barely masked their offensive troubles. And now they’ve lost the heart of their defense.
Even so, the Jazz have to do better than allowing Minnesota’s 10-of-20 shooting from 3-point range. “Whether we’re thinking about our offense and letting that affect our defense, it has to be the other way around,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder.
As of Monday, the debate is not about whether the Jazz will make the playoffs (they won’t).
The only question is whether losing Gobert temporarily or Gordon Hayward permanently will be the biggest reason.
This was a checkpoint game, considering the Timberwolves (8-5) are among the teams expected to finish ahead of the Jazz in the West. The contest became important for psychological and practical purposes. I figured if the Jazz couldn’t get back to .500 by beating Minnesota, they never would reach that point.
That’s because 12 of the next 18 games will be on the road, beginning Wednesday at New York. My original prediction was a 42-40 record, with the Jazz finishing around No. 8 in the West. That seems really ambitious now.
There’s a theory that Gobert’s absence would open up their offense and make it more efficient, as happened to some degree in Saturday’s win over Brooklyn, but Monday was another story. These guys looked lost at times, and Ricky Rubio and Joe Ingles shot a combined 0 for 10 on 3-pointers.
The Jazz fell behind 33-14 after the first quarter, their worst stretch in about three days. A team that shot in the low 30s twice last week needed a late flurry to finish in the high 30s by halftime, when they trailed 57-42.
This team simply will have to score a lot more points to offset Gobert’s missing impact. Joe Johnson’s return from injury, possibly this week, would help. The Jazz won Games 1 and 7 on the road in their playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers, basically without Gobert, due to his injury and foul trouble. But that was with Hayward and George Hill playing well, and they’re gone.
The Timberwolves came to town and played like the team the Jazz wish they could be, with three 20-point scorers, a solid defense (for three quarters) and a promising outlook for this season and beyond. As for the Jazz, fans should just hope this season doesn’t become a lot worse, before it gets better.