1. Jazz turn it up on both ends in the 2nd half to run away with victory
There was much hand-wringing from fans online as the Jazz fell to a nine-point deficit in the middle of the second quarter, as the Jazz bench unit scuffled and allowed a 14-2 run from the Cavaliers. Shots didn’t fall, the defense committed fouls, and turnovers were committed. We’ve seen this from the Jazz before, but against the 8-win Cavaliers?
But then the Jazz played well to finish the 2nd quarter, closing the deficit to one. And then they took over to end the 3rd quarter and throughout the fourth, turning a close game into a 26-point win. In some ways, it was just like this week’s 30-point win over the Knicks, just with the halves reversed.
That’s not to say that the Jazz didn’t make mistakes, nor is it to say that the Jazz should be making those mistakes. But the truth is that the Jazz were experimenting somewhat: in the second quarter, the team even tried a zone for a possession or two, having noticed that the zone completely flustered the Cavs in their most recent game. Whether it was because the Cavs had practiced it, or the Jazz aren’t very good at playing a zone right now, Cleveland exploited it for open shots. The Jazz also blew a couple of switches.
“Our execution defensively in the first half, we were doing some good things, and then we had some breakdowns and had a few situations where we didn’t execute the way we wanted to,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said.
But the biggest thing was that the Jazz did was just stopped fouling. They gave Cleveland 11 free throws in the second quarter, and just six in the other three quarters. Once they were forced to make some of the non-free shots, well, they simply weren’t talented enough to do so regularly.
“And then the fouling, we don’t need to foul if guys are driving into Rudy, or Derrick as well," Snyder said. "It’s just being disciplined not to foul. Our effort is always good, but we were focused on making the right play defensively (in the second half).”
Truthfully, some of the Jazz’s second-half success was due to the Jazzmen they know so well coming back to earth in predictable ways. Rodney Hood floated in and out of the game, and didn’t score after halftime. That sounds like classic Hood! Likewise, Alec Burks started hot, but then found himself missing tougher jumpers and then forcing some circus layups. That’s Burks! The Jazz knew if they just played disciplined basketball in the second half, they’d have more success, and they did.
2. Donovan Mitchell, making the right play
Donovan Mitchell led the Jazz in scoring on Friday night with 18 points, but he did so efficiently too. Mitchell made seven of his 12 shots, three of his four threes, and even added five assists against just one turnover.
What did he do well? Well, a lot of it was that shotmaking. We’re probably not talking about Mitchell if he goes 1-4 from 3, rather than 3-4. But I really liked his patience in his drives on a few occasions. Rather than predetermining his moves and forcing things in traffic, Mitchell started to slow down and allowed the defense to make the decision for him.
Take this basket: Mitchell comes downhill and looks to have some space. But rather than flipping up a mid-range shot or a tough scoop, Mitchell gets all the way to the rim, then fakes the lob pass to Rudy Gobert. Even though Gobert is covered, Thompson backs up to prevent it. That gives him an open easy layup, one of his easiest baskets of the year.
Or this one. This is the kind of defense that gave Jazz guards some trouble against the Knicks, trapping the ball up high. But Mitchell knows it’s coming, takes a step back to accept the double-team, then finds the open man. It’s patience, intelligence, and excellent passing.
When things are going poorly, sometimes Mitchell has had a tendency to press, to try to do too much. Instead, he took a breath, considered what the defense was doing, and then took advantage, and was a key part in the Jazz’s resurgence.
We’ll see if more of that happens coming up; obviously, the Cavs are not a good defensive team. But perhaps moments like this can help Mitchell get out of his mental funk.
3. Some basketball fallacies
Very frequently, when I’m watching basketball, I’ll hear the commentator chastise an early jump shot miss by a player. Why? Well, because it’s easier for players to “catch a rhythm” by making their first shot or two a dunk or a layup, then they’re more likely to hit from outside. Or so the thinking goes.
But Derrick Favors' performance against Cleveland shows just how fickle this can be. Favors made his first two shots of the game, a layup and a dunk. Then he missed his next five shots, including a couple of open 15-foot jump shots, maybe his most reliable outside weapon. Then after his cold streak, he made his next two.
Now, one example doesn’t prove or disprove the theory either way. There is real debate on whether the hot-hand effect exists; older studies tend to discount it entirely, while a 2014 study put it in the realm of a percentage point. One newer study criticizes the others, and puts it at eight percentage points. The Wikipedia page on the “hot hand” phenomena goes into depth on the subject and is a good place to start, if you’re curious.
Regardless, let’s say it’s eight percentage points. That’s a big difference! But most of the time, passing up an open jump shot late in a possession to try to drive inside with the defense waiting is a worse decision than eight percentage points. To criticize these players for taking the open shots they practice every day seems wrongheaded to me. As Snyder likes to say, sometimes it’s selfish not to take a shot.
One more while we’re here. Tony Jones tweeted this out when the Jazz were down three. I love Tony, and am not trying to embarrass him too much.
The Jazz outscored the Cavs by 29 points in the remaining 17 minutes of basketball.
Did the Cavs give up? Did they stop believing in themselves? Not really: the Jazz just played significantly better than them the rest of the way, and made more of their open and contested looks than the Cavs did. There are exceptions to this, but NBA players really do try their hardest nearly all of the time; they have too many incentives to do so.
I fall into sports cliche territory all of the time, so I’m not infallible here. It’s hard to talk a lot about sports without doing so. But I do think that avoiding those cliches, and the soft sciences of “confidence” and “motivation,” gets us closer to the truth more frequently than not.