Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 114-97 win over the Phoenix Suns from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. Smart scout on defense propels Jazz to win
That seemed more like it. The Jazz allowed the Suns to score only 94 points per 100 possessions, which was enough to get them to a win.
It’s not like the Suns are an offensive juggernaut, but they had played quite well over their last seven games. They were coming off an upset win against the Golden State Warriors, and even beat the Bucks last week. They were 5-2 over their last 7 coming into the game.
But even though this is only their second matchup this season, the Jazz know this Suns team well. They know the kinds of plays Igor Kokoskov, a former Jazz assistant, wants to run. Here, Joe Ingles sees the side-to-side pass coming (a pass the Jazz use frequently!) and picks it off for the easy two on the play right after halftime.
The Jazz used to have these kinds of turnovers too, and as much as turnovers have been a problem this season, they’re no longer having offense-initiation ones as much as they did when the players were younger and Quin’s system was fresher. The Suns will get better at this.
They’re also usually — Memphis game notwithstanding — pretty good at executing their scout. I thought the Jazz did that pretty well against Oklahoma City, limiting them to only 98 points. And I thought they did that well tonight, forcing Phoenix to their much-less-good second or third options.
For example, during his halftime interview , assistant coach Zach Guthrie mentioned how frequently that Devin Booker likes to draw fouls when going to his left. So the Jazz didn’t foul him when going left. (They did foul him at the end of quarters in pretty silly ways, but I consider that a lack of discipline rather than focus, if that makes sense.)
And DeAndre Ayton’s line: 1-9, 2 points, a -23, goes to show how well the Jazz played against him. It’s the lowest-scoring game of Ayton’s young career. Rudy Gobert is really good.
2. Rebounding a difference, too
The Suns also just five offensive rebounds (and only two second chance points) compared to the Jazz’s 12 (in both categories). This wasn’t particularly surprising, to be honest: the Suns are the worst defensive rebounding team in the league, and the fourth-worst offensive rebounding team.
What’s going on there? I think a lot of rebounding is team effort. Boxing out isn’t enough, you need efforts from your wing players to help out in case the rebound bounces out wide. This is another good example: Royce O’Neale steals this rebound that probably should be Phoenix’s by timing his jump, tapping it to himself, and collecting the board. He does his work so early, getting in position even as the pass is being made.
One more good O’Neale play. Here, he knows that Derrick Favors is going to have to help defend the layup. So frequently, these turn into putback dunks for the opposition. But O’Neale puts his butt into Ayton’s leg, drives him back, and gets the rebound.
One more, just cause it’s impressive: Ricky Rubio sees that this Thabo Sefolosha three is going to fall short, and that there’s a space on the floor where he thinks the rebound is going to go to. Even though he’s one of the men who should be retreating in transition, he gets the offensive rebound.
Rubio has told me that these plays have to be “99 percent” plays, ones where he’s that sure that he’s going to get the offensive board in order to abdicate his defensive responsibilities. He gets this one absolutely right.
The Suns have the sort of athletes who should be able to lead their team to rebounding success. Even beyond Ayton, I’m thinking specifically of Kelly Oubre, Josh Jackson, and Mikal Bridges. But because they aren’t as excited about getting into the play if they’re not getting the rebound itself, their team suffers as a result.
3. All three point guards were available? At once?
The Jazz had all three point guards available for the first time since the start of the new year, with Rubio, Dante Exum, and Raul Neto all healthy. They finished a combined 1-13 from the field, and yet clearly had a positive impact on the Jazz’s play.
I’ll start with Rubio, who, while he shot just 1-7, took care of the ball and made plays like the one shown above. It wasn’t a particularly difficult defensive matchup for him, but I thought he did a good job on Tyler Johnson anyway.
Raul Neto’s shooting didn’t shine either (0-3 from the floor), but he managed to accumulate five assists in just 11 minutes out there. It’s weird, because he is the Jazz’s smallest point guard and probably their slowest, but he’s so shifty that he’s able to break the paint anyway. He knows how to use screens really well to get separation — or sometimes, he’ll reject the screen and create off of that short advantage, like an Alec Burks with his eyes looking outward. He’s good when he can stay on the floor.
As for Dante Exum, I don’t know if there’s a more controversial player right now: you might be safer bringing up politics or religion at your family dinner table than Exum. He’s 0-6, scoreless, with four turnovers in the two games that he’s played since returning.
The Exum Islanders will admit Exum has played poorly in those two games, that’s pretty non-negotiable. But they also are upset at you for noticing, upset at you for bringing the topic up, upset at Quin Snyder for pulling him after some short and damaging stints, and confident that he’d turn it around if only the world believed in him.
Meanwhile, there are the Ex-Nay on Exumers (I’ll take name submissions for this group, which is less well organized than the Islanders), who think that he’s soft, overpaid, overrated, a product of draft hype, injury prone, and that the Jazz should ship him out at the next available opportunity.
Here’s my take: Exum, at his peak during the season, was a very useful player. If he played at that level in the playoffs, he could play a big role, and getting him to that level should be one of Quin Snyder’s goals for the rest of the year. However, right now, he is not at that level, and pulling him in close games (which this game was, when Exum was sent to the bench for Neto) for players that are playing better now is the right decision. That is especially true given the crowded nature of the Western Conference. There will be opportunities in the Jazz’s schedule to get Exum minutes and practices, and that he only played 9:12 tonight is not a catastrophe or even a bad thing. It doesn’t have to happen right away.
But it’s great that the Jazz have their point guards back. Here’s a truth from the mouth of Rudy Gobert, though: “It’s good to have point guards to play basketball." With healthy point guards, Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles got to play their traditional roles, and both had enough in the tank in the fourth quarter to pull away and get the win at the end.