The Triple Team: Andy Larsen’s analysis of how the Spurs' midrange shooting defeated a slow start by the Jazz

San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) looks to pass as he is defended by Utah Jazz forward Joe Ingles (2) and center Rudy Gobert during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018, in San Antonio. San Antonio won 110-97. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 110-97 loss to the San Antonio Spurs from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Spurs dominate the mid-range

If you hate analytics, this was your kind of game.

The Spurs just killed the Jazz by taking and making midrange shots, while the Jazz missed their “good” shots, leading to a relatively easy victory for the Spurs at home. Here’s the shot chart:


This looks like a mid-90s shot chart. If you don’t want to count up all of those Xs and Os, the Spurs shot 29-56 from mid-range against the Jazz, or 52 percent. Overall, they took 64 percent of their shots from the midrange, the highest percentage of such shots from the midrange-heavy Spurs this season.

Early, the Jazz could have done a better job. In particular, in the second quarter, the Jazz were torched time and time again by LaMarcus Aldridge hitting open 20-footers off of pick and pop action, the kind of play that they just didn’t do well enough to stop. Rudy Gobert didn’t get out to close out, but in his defense, the guards got downhill too easily, forcing him in the paint to prevent layups.

Then in the second half, the Spurs just started making really tough shots in the midrange, especially Rudy Gay over Thabo Sefolosha. Gay is capable of that, but these are the kinds of shots that the Jazz want teams to take: contested tough looks with a hand from a long defender in the face.

But the math only goes so far when your opponent is hitting those, while you’re missing shots like these off the side of the backboard:

So yes, corner threes are worth 1.15 points per possession, while midrange ones are worth 0.8 on average. But corner three misses are worth 0, and midrange makes are worth 2, and well, that’s a bigger difference.

The Jazz’s approach worked really well in their game against the Spurs on Tuesday, but with the shotmaking going in a different direction Sunday it was a different story.

2. Donovan Mitchell’s tale of two halves

Donovan Mitchell had two very different halves in Sunday’s game. In the first half, he shot 0-6 from the field and scored zero points. In the second half, Mitchell scored 27 points on 8-10 shooting.

For Mitchell, it was his third consecutive low-scoring half, having only scored six in all of the Jazz’s big win over the Rockets. But at home against Houston, the Jazz didn’t need Mitchell; against the Spurs, they did.

I thought it was interesting how Mitchell got his points, too: of his eight made shots, six of them were pull-up jumpers. Mitchell did get to the free-throw line 10 times, so it’s not that he wasn’t really attacking the rim, but he took the pull-up shots the rest of the Jazz’s offense — save Ricky Rubio — wasn’t willing to take (or make).

How Mitchell finds that balance between taking over the game and allowing his teammates to do their thing is something that’s still developing. Sometimes, it seems like Mitchell’s scoring engagement is a switch: if he’s on, he’s one of the most impressive scoring threats in the league, but when he’s off, it’s hard to find him in the game.

The truth is more complex, though. How Mitchell gets his points is really dependent on how much attention he’s getting from the defense. Check out that video from point No. 1 again: Crowder is wide open because Mitchell draws two temporarily, forcing the defense to rotate over to stop Favors' roll.

I would like to see more from Mitchell defensively, though. There were a couple of times late in the game when Mitchell applied ball-pressure high up the court, but just got beat on straight line drives as a result. That’s the same strategy that the Jazz used to defend James Harden on Thursday, but the Spurs don’t have that kind of pull-up 3-point threat.

3. Bench unit allows big first-half run, again

It was the second game in four in which the Jazz allowed a massive, game-changing run at the end of the first quarter and the beginning of the second while the bench unit played. Just as the Jazz allowed a 20-0 run against the Heat last Sunday, the second string gave up a 17-0 run seven days later against the Spurs. The run came just after Rubio and Gobert left the game.

Some of the problem is again, what you saw in point No. 1: the Jazz just missing shots they should make. But truthfully, Quin Snyder’s done a lot to juice that second unit already. Mitchell comes out early so he can play with the second string, being their lead offensive option by far. But it seems like it’s not enough at times, and the Jazz can’t figure out a way to break the paint.

When these runs happen, I see people tweeting angrily to Snyder. Tweets like “put the starters back in to stop the bleeding!” rule the day. But it simply doesn’t make sense to play your starters 48 minutes, or really, anywhere close: even 38 minutes begins to feel very Tom Thibodeau-ish very quickly. That’s especially true in the first game of a back-to-back.

So the bench has to come in at some point, and when it does, it has to perform better.

“We got stagnant,” Snyder explained. “We started the game pretty well defensively and then went through a period when we didn’t score. When that happens, your defense has to hold them.” But getting out to a 36-point first half puts the defense under a ton of pressure.

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