The Triple Team: Andy Larsen’s analysis of how the Jazz beat a very gimmicky Spurs defense on Saturday afternoon

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Kyle Korver (26) shoots around San Antonio Spurs center LaMarcus Aldridge (12) as the Utah Jazz host the San Antonio Spurs, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Saturday Feb. 9, 2019.

1. Jazz figure out how to exploit gimmicky Spurs defense

That was one of the strangest defensive efforts I’ve ever seen from an NBA team. Essentially, for much of the game, the Spurs played a triangle-and-two zone defense to prevent the Jazz’s star players from getting open while allowing Ricky Rubio, Jae Crowder, Derrick Favors, and Royce O’Neale to shoot wide-open threes.

The triangle-and-two is a gimmick defense, basically used way more in high school and college where more players can’t shoot. Essentially, the defense dedicates two guys to faceguarding the two stars, then aligns everyone else in a triangle zone that can sinks into the paint.


So here, the two scoring threats are Joe Ingles and Donovan Mitchell, who are being guarded tightly by Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli. Patty Mills is at the top of the triangle. But wait, there are two players he has to guard: Raul Neto and Royce O’Neale. So they literally just pass it back and forth once, and O’Neale just gets a wide-open three.

I’m relatively confident I’ve never seen this used at the NBA level... I mean, look how easy that shot was to get! It’s essentially insanity.

Also insanity: it took the Jazz a shockingly long time to exploit this. Look at how open they’re leaving Crowder on some of these attempts (or in one case, an assist).

Crowder’s now shooting 38 percent on wide-open threes. That’s not horrendous, but the Jazz would be so much better if he were able to consistently hit those.

Really, I think Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was really frustrated at his team allowing 127 points or more in the last three consecutive games, and so just decided to send a statement to his players about what he thought of their traditional defense. I’m not sure if it was effective.

2. Royce at the 4, and what are positions, anyway?

To be honest, what broke the Spurs out of this was Royce O’Neale’s ability to shoot the ball. O’Neale went 4-4 from deep today, finishing with 17 points overall. He’s now shooting 42.7 percent from deep for the season, even better than what Kyle Korver has done in his time with the Jazz.

But playing him at the guard positions isn’t really the answer, it turns out. We talked about this in the last Triple Team, but Quin Snyder says O’Neale is best when defending a wing:

“We’ve asked him to defend a bunch of different players, but he’s most comfortable and effective when he’s guarding a wing. That’s when he’s able to use his aggressiveness and physicality to be disruptive,” Snyder said.

Playing him at the power forward position worked really well for the Jazz. Part of that was because the Spurs played really small, too, but there’s some idea that might work even against more normal lineups.

What are some things you want from your stretch four? You want them to be able to shoot or attack closeouts, you want them to be able to help on the defensive glass, you want them to be able to have a chance at defending bigger guys if need be, and you want them to be able to keep the offense flowing if the ball ends up in their hands and they can’t just pull the trigger.

Wait a second, O’Neale has all of those characteristics! He’s shooting the 3-ball extremely well, he’s adept at one-or-two dribble drives, he outrebounds Crowder and Georges Niang on a per-minute basis, and is a better and quicker passer than Crowder. He’s also very strong, so while he’s only listed at 6-foot-6, he isn’t going to really be posted up against. Besides, who posts up power forwards anymore? I guess Blake Griffin would take advantage of him, so don’t use this against Griffin. Everywhere else, it’ll be fine.

We so frequently think of stretch fours as Ryan Anderson, Jonas Jerebko, Dario Saric, Trey Lyles types: 6-foot-10 guys who are big, but can shoot. What some teams have started to realize is that you don’t actually lose much at all by just playing a wing there who can rebound, and they’re probably better at the shooting thing, too.

3. The early start time

The Jazz played today’s game at 3 p.m., a rare matinee game that wasn’t scheduled that way because of national TV — though the game was on NBATV, the NBA doesn’t make a habit of changing the times of games for that small network.

Instead, playing the game early allowed a European audience to tune in at a much more reasonable time, especially important in a game that featured Rubio, Rudy Gobert, Thabo Sefolosha, Jakob Poeltl, Davis Bertans, Marco Belinelli, and Pau Gasol. That only can help interest in the NBA from overseas, thus making everyone more money.

But Rubio really appreciated this early start for perhaps the most heartbreaking reason possible.

“It’s great, because when I finish the game, everybody’s on their phones getting messages from their friends and family. I only have one from my dad,” Rubio said. “Sometimes he falls asleep, but I don’t blame him.”

Rubio confirmed that he received many more messages after this game.

The other aspect of this is that the Jazz can see how an afternoon start time impacts ticket sales, concessions, television ratings, and all of that. The crowd was pretty good for the game, and while I have no real sense of the other numbers, I wonder if we’ll start seeing more of these matinee weekend games in the future.