Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 113-107 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. Mental mistakes cost the Jazz a win
It’s really tough to win a game in which you shoot 18 percent from 3 and 56 percent from the free-throw line, but somehow, the Jazz were in pole position to do so in the fourth quarter. But a string of simple mental mistakes cost them.
Mental mistake category one: Ricky Rubio’s fouling. Twice down the stretch, Rubio fouled the Sixers to send them to the charity stripe when he probably didn’t need to: once on a double-down on Joel Embiid that Rudy Gobert probably had covered, then on J.J. Redick with under 90 seconds to go.
Both were sort of understandable from a certain perspective. Embiid is a talented post scorer and the Jazz had success with bringing help against him all night, and Rubio had picked up a steal on the previous possession before fouling Redick. But fouling is such a bad outcome, because you’d prefer to at least give them an opportunity to miss.
Mental mistake category two: defensive communication. First, Ben Simmons had an and-one opportunity thanks to a play in which Redick pushed Rubio into Jae Crowder, giving Simmons a lane to the basket. First of all, it’s definitely an illegal play, but that’s rarely called late. In those situations, the Jazz need to communicate to figure out how they can stop Simmons from having a full lane to the basket.
This one was more damaging, though. With 20 seconds left in the game and five seconds on the shot clock, the Jazz let Jimmy Butler get this wide-open layup attempt.
Joe Ingles probably shouldn’t just get beaten to the rim like this, but Jimmy Butler played it well. Essentially, Rudy Gobert was focused on defending the action for Redick on the perimeter, so his screen and help senses didn’t go off when Butler ran by him. You can see in the video that Ingles wants Gobert further back so he can help, but Gobert wants to challenge the perimeter shot from Redick or Embiid, too. It’s a tough ask, but the very worst thing the Jazz could give up was a layup.
These kinds of mental mistakes were uncharacteristic for this Jazz squad during the run a year ago, but have been more frequent in the first 15 games. Cleaning up these kinds of mistakes requires a focus that the Jazz haven’t demonstrated consistently, both individually and collectively.
2. Play the starters, or play the players who got you there?
There are some wonky plus-minuses tonight. Rudy Gobert ended up as a -26, which ties for the worst regular-season plus-minus of his career. I thought Gobert’s best came and went during this game, he picked up two fouls early, but then played like he was in foul trouble at times after that, even when he wasn’t.
That led Quin Snyder to play Favors for most of the second and third quarters. Usually Gobert ends the first half, but Favors got the honors thanks to his good play, sparking the run that brought the Sixers' lead from 16 to two. And in the third quarter, the Sixers again started out scoring well, and again the Jazz came back with Favors at center lineups.
A similar situation happened with Ricky Rubio and Dante Exum. Rubio struggled again on Friday in a way that the box score doesn’t quite describe, missing most of his free throws and struggling to stay with Redick consistently. His plus-minus wasn’t good, and he ended up a -15 for the game. Dante Exum’s play wasn’t quite as good as Favors' was, but Exum did some nice things: he finished at the rim and found Gobert and Favors for four assists, matching Rubio’s total in 13 fewer minutes. And importantly, he did guard Redick closer, though things were easiest when Exum was matched up against Markelle Fultz.
This is a difficult decision for a coach. When you have two bench players outplaying the starters in one game, do you allow those bench players to finish the game, or do you go to the players who are probably better?
In this case, I thought Snyder made one right decision and one wrong one. For the Jazz, Gobert is their identity, and he truly is one of the elite players in the league having a very good season. Not playing him late seems like a bad idea, even though Gobert did make costly mistakes. Over the aggregate, Gobert’s impact will be larger than Favors'.
With Exum and Rubio, though, I thought that Exum would have been the better choice. Exum’s ability to stay in front more consistently defensively could have helped the Jazz, and his bigger body could have given the team more of an opportunity to switch. Both are bad shooters right now, but I would have preferred the better on-ball defender, and there’s less to lose given Rubio’s average play this season.
For what it’s worth, Rubio made the mistakes you see above and then some, though had some key plays too with a steal and a clutch leaning basket late.
One thing I’ve learned since becoming closer to the team is that these decisions are frequently as much about future games as winning the game at hand. The team likes and trusts Rubio, for example, and knows that he can help them win. By showing belief in Rubio now near his nadir, the Jazz hope to get much more from him later in the season.
3. Donovan Mitchell can’t do that
I thought Donovan Mitchell’s fourth quarter was very good, when he scored 13 points on 5-9 shooting. Mitchell didn’t force his looks too much, despite the defensive pressure, and was getting good shots in the lane. It was an impressive scoring run, and the Jazz needed it.
Before that, though, when he shot 8-26 from the field while throwing up some ugly jumpers? He can’t do that. Shots like this are just about the worst looks you can get. Can Mitchell make this shot? Yes. Is he likely to make this shot? Definitely no.
And he shouldn’t decide to attack the rim with this much help around.
“I took 35 shots, that can’t happen. Zero assists. It’s not who I am, it’s not how I play,” Mitchell said. "I have to be aggressive, but I still need to take smarter looks.”
In an important game to him personally, Mitchell subverted the team concept at times to get his own looks. You understand that mistake from a young player, but it’s not the kind of thing that should happen again. While Mitchell is the Jazz’s best offensive weapon, the team identity is built around ball movement and finding the best shot possible, and Mitchell didn’t regularly do that tonight.