Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 90-83 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. Jazz can’t figure out how to score
As you can see, the Jazz only scored 83 points against the Lakers, who have been allowing 114 points per contest. It’s the first time the Lakers have allowed fewer than 84 points since February of last season.
I would like to say that the Jazz’s scoring woes were due to lacking Donovan Mitchell, who only played 11 minutes in the game due to a rib contusion. But while Mitchell probably would have helped, I don’t know that for sure. After all, the Jazz only had a 62 offensive rating with Mitchell in during those minutes.
With or without Mitchell, the Jazz’s lack of a second offensive scoring threat is a problem. Joe Ingles actually did a pretty decent job at leading the way without Mitchell, with 16 points and five assists, but putting him in a primary role is asking too much. Ditto with Alec Burks, who scored 17 points but went 5-15 from the field in doing so.
The biggest problem is the stretches of complete non-contribution that the Jazz get from Ricky Rubio, Dante Exum, Royce O’Neale, and Jae Crowder offensively. That allows teams to help with near impunity, and then everything grinds to a halt.
Here’s an example. Ingles is running the pick and roll with Rudy Gobert, but Lonzo Ball has an opportunity to help off Rubio to swipe at Ingles, forcing him to pick up the ball. That means no drive and no lob, and Ingles just has to pass it back, leading to a Crowder pull-up three.
Something like Burks, Mitchell, Ingles, Crowder, Gobert might be the Jazz’s best offensive chance, but that lineup has some real holes defensively. Snyder did go to Burks instead of Rubio late in the game, but the Lakers just switched Burks onto LeBron James, then attacked.
Against drop-big defense especially, the Jazz just lack real scoring threats.
2. A good defensive game
And despite the three straight losses, there were signs of real positivity in the Jazz’s locker room Friday night. It was an overall very good night for the Jazz’s defense: 90 points in 100 possessions is a definite win. They showed flashes of being the defensive team that they were last season with some plays in which they showed they were the defensive aggressor.
They forced 23 Lakers turnovers, though if we’re honest, many of those were self-inflicted. But especially with Jae Crowder in the game, they were able to prevent too many rotations, instead keeping the Lakers in front and sticking with them one on one.
Plays like this show how seamless the Jazz’s defense has the potential to be. Coming off a screen, the Lakers are used to going downhill immediately, putting real pressure on the defense by getting into the paint. But Crowder switches the pick and moves laterally very quickly to get in front of Ingram and force the charge.
We’ve mentioned the need for the Jazz to get backside help from the guards in screen situations, and I thought they did that tonight. They forced turnovers and even earned blocked shots from behind, limiting the Lakers' ability to score.
And they did a very good job at two of the other four factors: finishing possessions through defensive rebounding, and not letting the Lakers get to the free throw line. The Lakers only had five offensive rebounds in 43 missed shots, and allowing just 18 free throws is a pretty good win, too.
“We guarded. We executed on the defensive end. We executed the gameplan, and our guys played with energy,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said. “Nothing to be ashamed of or discouraged by, but I thought we really played the way we’ve been looking to play on the defensive end. We got back in transition. We have to keep grinding.”
That’s part of what makes it such a shame that the Jazz couldn’t score, because they could have used a win to reward them for significantly improved defensive effort. Alas, they couldn’t make shots, nor score in transition.
3. Gobert’s not impacting shots at the rim
Given the Jazz’s defensive quality overall tonight, this probably isn’t the time to bring it up. But I thought one play encapsulated something that I’ve been feeling this season: that Gobert hasn’t been good enough at protecting the rim this season.
Here’s the play. Lance Stephenson is attacking the rim after a screen by Javale McGee. Ingles loses Stephenson, so Gobert is responsible for stopping the scoring attempt. But the good news is that McGee isn’t rolling to the rim, so Gobert only has one job here.
But instead of changing Stephenson’s shot at all, Gobert keeps his hands low and backpedals. Eventually, he just sticks an elbow into Stephenson’s midsection as he takes the layup, and it goes in. I’d rightly criticize, say, Enes Kanter for doing this move, it’s just not good defense. But this time, it comes from the defensive player of the year.
If this were a one-time thing, fine. But it’s not: the stats show that teams have had significantly more success attacking the floor this year against Gobert than any other. This table, from the awesome website Cleaning The Glass, tells the story:
This is how well Jazz opponents have shot from various areas on the floor while Rudy Gobert has been on the court since his breakout sophomore season. Cleaning The Glass shows the stats in two ways: the percentage, in gray text, and the 1-100 percentile that number represents compared to the rest of the league. Blue percentiles are good defense, red percentiles are bad defense.
In the first four years, Gobert’s rim-defending is solidly in the blue, if not elite. And in the most recent two seasons before this one, Gobert’s impact also helped in mid-range shots and even 3-point shots overall. (There’s some debate over whether or not the outside impact is because Gobert’s inside defense allowed the Jazz to play more solid defense on the perimeter or just randomness, but anyway.)
In this season, the Jazz have defended the rim at a below average level with Gobert on the floor. Now, the midrange and 3-point defense has been even worse, but you would have figured that the Jazz could at least locking down the rim with Gobert out there. So far, that’s not the case. In fact, teams have shot about 2.4 percent better at the rim with Gobert in the game than when he is on the bench.
For what it’s worth, he still dissuades rim shots at about the same rate as seasons past. Teams shoot about 8 percent fewer shots at the rim when Gobert’s out there compared to when he isn’t. It’s just that now, they’re just making the ones they take.
There’s no question that at least some of the responsibility here falls on the guards to put Gobert in better defensive situations. In fact, it might even be a lion’s share of the responsibility. But Gobert, coming off a brilliant season where he earned the Defensive Player of the Year award, hasn’t played up to that standard so far.