Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 123-112 win over the Portland Trail Blazers from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. Jazz can’t contain Portland’s guards, inside or out
It’s not that Quin Snyder will be disappointed the Jazz won this game, but you wonder if the coaching about the team’s defense would land more heavily if the outcome would have gone differently. Let’s be clear: Portland’s starters dominated Utah’s starters throughout the night.
“I didn’t think we played well,” Snyder said, as Kristen Kenney tried to ask him about the win. “I thought defensively, we didn’t play good defense. A lot of it was not being focused, or breakdowns, and I didn’t think we had the level of intensity that we needed on the defensive end.”
Damian Lillard’s +22 and C.J. McCollum’s +18 are clear signs of that. Lillard and McCollum are two of the league’s most talented scoring guards, yes. If they’re knocking down tough shots from outside over and over again, sometimes there’s nothing a defense can do.
This wasn’t one of those cases, though. The Blazers' starters were exploiting the Jazz inside and out, getting to the rim far too easily. It’s hard to blame any one player, because they all really struggled: the perimeter players didn’t stop the guards, and the bigs didn’t contain on pick and rolls or impact shots at the rim. The result: a lot of easy layups.
Donovan Mitchell just loses Lillard in transition here, then Jae Crowder fouls him with his hip:
Early in the shot clock here, Favors opens his hips a little bit, letting Lillard just get to the basket for a layup. The idea is that Favors should be there to meet Lillard at the point of attack, but he’s just a bit late.
I thought Rudy Gobert summed it up well: "We need to be more physical individually and more vocal collectively.” Mitchell mentioned that he thought the team had the new non-contact rules a little bit too much at top of mind, and that meant less impactful defense than they’re used to. It wasn’t all bad: the Jazz did force a high number of turnovers from the Blazers, 19 in the first 3 quarters. But if you let them shoot 60 percent from the floor on the possessions they do keep, well, it doesn’t matter that much.
If that’s a regular season game, the Jazz’s lack of defensive containment would have meant a loss.
2. Jazz bench unit saves the day
But once again, the Jazz made a game look much better than it was thanks to a standout performance in preseason “garbage” time from their bench. With 8:14 left, the Jazz put in their all-bench lineup: Grayson Allen, Alec Burks, Royce O’Neale, Georges Niang and Ekpe Udoh. Seconds later, they were facing an eight-point deficit due to an Anfernee Simons three.
And then that unit came all the way back, going on a 30-6 run in six minutes that put the game so out of doubt for the Jazz that the 16th-20th players had to be called on to end the contest.
Let’s be clear: Portland had its deep bench in for the fourth as well. The Jazz took significant advantage of repeated mistakes by that whole Portland unit, most notably from local Caleb Swanigan. Swanigan hedged super far down on an Udoh post-up for some reason, lost the ball twice in his own backcourt, fouled 3-point jump shooters, didn’t rotate over on layups, and basically committed the full gamut of mistakes that are possible in an NBA game.
But I was encouraged by the Jazz’s defense during that stretch, especially O’Neale and Burks. They had two steals each during the six-minute run, and O’Neale even added a block.
On offense, they played together extremely well as a unit, and Georges Niang did a really nice job of having a quick and accurate trigger from 3-point range. Remember, Niang shot 45.9 percent from 3-point range in the G-League last year; he’s a real threat from distance at his size.
So yes, the win is a little bit of fool’s gold, but pyrite is still a cool, shiny rock.
3. Jazz trying to get shots they want against heavy drop-big defenses
The Blazers had pretty good success against the Jazz last season, and while you probably want to give credit for that to Lillard and McCollum, it turns out that Portland’s defense has been just as good as their offense: last year, the Jazz only scored 100.3 points per 100 possessions in four matchups against Portland’s surprisingly good defense, which ranked eighth overall.
But when you examine why, it makes sense: Portland plays the “drop big” style of defense that pushes Jusuf Nurkic way into the paint as teams come off pick and rolls, begging the Jazz to hit pull-up and midrange shots. This is the same strategy that Atlanta used against the Jazz, to similar success.
The problem is that the Jazz don’t have many talented pull-up shooters. Notably, Joe Ingles is bad at it, though he’s tried to add a mid-range floater to his game. But you can see the impact on the Jazz shooting chart below: it’s just way too many mid-range red X’s for Snyder’s liking.
In general, Snyder doesn’t want his offense to settle for those shots, even if they’re open. Last season, Snyder gave me a list of five things his offenses can do instead:
“We can drive and dive. We can flip the angle of the screen and cut back. We can hold him on your hip and keep him in the middle of the lane. We can attack the big downhill, and we can Nash (in other words, dribble around the basket and out),” he said.
The Jazz didn’t do that consistently tonight, but they did occasionally make it work. Here’s Ingles driving, and Gobert diving, for the easy Gobert dunk:
And here’s Rubio “Nashing” to draw the defense to his side of the paint, then finding Gobert for an alley-oop.
I’ve focused on how the Jazz can attack switching defenses, and that will be an important part of the season. But they’ll probably face more possessions of this style of defense this year, and their ability to stay patient and make the right play will be key.