The Triple Team: Jazz get out in transition and stop the opposition at the rim to get home win over Mavericks

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) defends against Dallas Mavericks center Salah Mejri, right, during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Three thoughts on the Jazz’s 125-109 win over the Dallas Mavericks from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Jazz run through fatigue

After the Jazz scored 129 points in regulation on Friday night, they scored 125 in regulation on Saturday night. This time, it was enough to win.

But what I thought was a little bit remarkable was that they were primarily successful tonight by running the ball and scoring in transition. According to CleaningTheGlass, the Jazz scored 103 points per 100 possessions in the half-court... not bad. But they scored 218 points per 100 possessions on their transition chances, which is just holy-cow-level for any team, let alone one that played 58 minutes the night before and then flew from Oklahoma City to Salt Lake City.

And maybe even crazier, nearly all of those points came after Dallas shot attempts, not turnovers. In fact, the Mavs only had three turnovers all game, but the Jazz still manage to get 16 fast-break points and more that came in “semi-transition” — that is, where the Jazz take advantage of the speed but not immediately. Do the math, and the Jazz scored 210 points per 100 possessions just on the transition shots after live rebounds they picked up.

I thought Donovan Mitchell was the key to this. He began the game running the floor and trying to set a tone, and it showed. A couple of times, he went coast-to-coast to either get layups, fouls, or both.

At first, he’s running to the corner here, but then he realizes there’s no one back, so he runs to the rim for the alley-oop from an assist from Joe Ingles:

Let’s also be honest about perhaps the biggest factor here: the Mavs were slow tonight. Their starting power forward was Dirk Nowitzki, who had the literal commissioner of the NBA comment this at All-Star weekend:

“In the case of Dirk Nowitzki, I saw him painfully running up and down the court, and I think it was clear that this was going to be his last season,” Adam Silver said.

Ouch: he got retired by the commissioner. But Nowitzki played the forward spot next to center Salah Mejri, who might not be faster.

Even when the Jazz are playing two big men in Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, they can still attack a team that plays two slow bigs because there isn’t any rim protection. We saw that time and time again tonight for the Jazz. Coming off that back to back, the Mavs probably figured they could get away with the Mejri/Nowitzki frontcourt, but the truth is that they couldn’t.

2. Jazz’s rim protection pretty great

The Mavs only made six shots at the rim tonight. In fact, they only shot 15.

Both of those numbers are pretty ridiculously low: 15 shots is in the bottom 1 percent of all games this season, and forcing a team to shoot only forty percent on layups and dunks is in the bottom 2 percent. That’s pretty good.

Rudy Gobert deserves most of the credit here, as always, and to be frank, I don’t write about his impact enough because it’s so consistent. But limiting a team to 12 points at the rim is just as impactful as a 30-point offensive game, just at the other end. And just like with point No. 1, the Mavericks’ unique lineup also deserves a lot of credit here: they just don’t have a lot of players that are really threats to attack the rim.

Since it’s been published, I’ve been thinking a lot about this CleaningTheGlass article, detailing how the Milwaukee Bucks have had the league’s best defense this season while allowing the most threes. In short: they protect the rim like crazy, and help off of bad shooters to do it.

Ben Falk also details how much the league has changed in order to make that possible: essentially, teams got really good at attacking the rim, that the calculus has significantly changed. Averaging 33 percent from distance isn’t very good offense anymore; you really need 37 percent to really be gaining an advantage.

This infographic, by CrumpledJumper on Twitter, really shows the trends (you may have to click to expand):

CrumpledJumper, Twitter

Obviously, the Jazz are well set-up here, with perhaps the league’s best rim-protector on defense. The shooting thing, though, they’ll need to continue to improve.

3. Being fair to Ricky Rubio

Ricky Rubio had an awful night against OKC, with eight turnovers including five at the most crucial times of the game. Against Dallas, he was really good: he scored 25 points on 8-14 shooting, adding five assists and zero turnovers. He had the Jazz’s best plus-minus, and played the team’s most minutes.

There’s no doubt about Rubio’s inconsistency: one of his nicknames is Tricky Ricky, but the truth is probably closer to Trick-or-Treat Ricky. And when he is bad, there’s no doubt about how he hurts the team; his turnovers can short-circuit the Jazz’s offense and give the opposition multiple easy baskets on the other end, and his shooting weakness allows teams to safely hedge off of him to stop his Jazz teammates.

But I also hear a lot of unfair criticism lobbed at Rubio. I received a text from a friend tonight about Rubio’s defense on Jalen Brunson, after Brunson made two consecutive shots in the fourth quarter. That’s all it took: two shots for five points. And Brunson shot 5-14 overall on the night, scoring only 13 points, he also committed five fouls.

Or against OKC, the word was that Rubio couldn’t guard Russell Westbrook. We now have the matchup stats from the NBA in the game, and Westbrook scored 13 points against Rubio on 5-10 FGs. Donovan Mitchell switched onto him, and according to some, everything changed. In reality, Mitchell allowed 11 points on 4-10 FGs. Are we really killing Rubio for one extra made shot from Russ?

And the stats still show that the offense is more successful with Rubio running the point guard spot than Mitchell. With Rubio on the floor, the Jazz have a 111.6 offensive rating. With Mitchell on the floor — and without Rubio, Dante Exum, or Raul Neto out there — the Jazz have a 107.1 offensive rating. It’s not a huge positive, but it’s hard to conclude that the team would be better today if Mitchell just took Rubio’s spot, while, say, Royce O’Neale started at shooting guard.

I think, more than we realize, basketball is prone to confirmation bias: we see the trends that appeal to our narratives. So many have chosen a narrative that Rubio is the problem with this Jazz team, but it’s just a simplification of the truth.

Here’s the Rubio-agnostic truth: he’s not a very good shooter, he’s turnover prone, and he’s good at some parts of defense and not others. But he is good at running an offense, and frequently does good work with the ball in his hands.

Is he an average NBA starting point guard? Probably not. Do his limitations lower the Jazz’s ceiling? Probably. Should the Jazz seek to improve at that spot this summer? Probably, and indeed, they already have with the Mike Conley negotiations. But to blame every bad Jazz thing on Rubio is an oversimplification, and a harmful one to getting this team to true contention.