The Triple Team: Ricky Rubio leads Jazz over the one-man-show Charlotte Hornets, led by Kemba Walker’s 47

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Ricky Rubio (3) reacts after scoring a big 3-point shot late in the 4th quarter, in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Washington Wizards, in Salt Lake City, Friday, March 29, 2019.

Three thoughts on the Jazz’s 111-102 win over the Charlotte Hornets from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Ricky Rubio creating offense

When Ricky Rubio was on the court for the Jazz tonight, they had a 128 offensive rating. When he was off the court, that offensive rating fell to 75.

It felt that way, too. Rubio just manipulated the Hornets defense to make guys open, whether it be with dribbles or his eyes. The Hornets defense wanted to switch often, a strategy that worked very well with the Jazz’s bench in. But with the starters, Rubio could give the Hornets that split second of indecision that caused players to be open.

Here’s his full highlight video from tonight:

There’s no doubt that a lot of these are mistakes by the Hornets defense: they can’t fail to communicate this many times. But when they’re not sure if Rubio is passing or driving, or they think he’s passing to the perimeter when he’s really going inside, or vice versa, the result is a lot of wide open baskets.

I also like the way he’s been attacking the rim more frequently. Sure, that meant he went 1-for-3 at the rim tonight, not a pretty percentage. But when you take into account the free-throws he drew (nine of them), that’s still a very efficient play.

The overall numbers still aren’t great as to his effectiveness on drives: according to the NBA’s tracking data, Rubio only scores 4.6 points on his 12.2 drives per game even when taking into account fouls drawn, one of the lowest such ratios in the NBA. But tonight, he found a healthy balance of driving and finding his teammates in other ways.

2. Kemba Walker is really, really good

I mean, this isn’t really a surprise, by any means: Kemba Walker first impressed in his college career at UConn before being drafted ninth overall by Charlotte. He did have somewhat of a slow start in his first couple of seasons, but he’s one of those guys that has just improved every single season and has now become a no-doubter All-Star.

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He’s taking a higher percentage of possessions on this season, which has impacted his shooting percentages. But he’s not turning the ball over any more, his assists have gone up, and his defense and rebounding is still improved from last year. The Hornets absolutely crater when he’s not out there for the third straight season.

Walker had 47 points tonight, and obviously, that’s a big number. The 22 points he scored in the last five minutes were wildly impressive, true, but also it was definitely garbage time by then. The threes were pretty impressive.

But as much as I liked what he did with his shot, I was more impressed with his ability to draw fouls. That’s not always his skillset, actually: he takes only about 0.2 more free throws per 36 minutes than Donovan Mitchell. But tonight, when he realized that the Hornets couldn’t make a basket — at one point, they were 1-21 from beyond the 3-point line — he took it upon himself to score in some other way. That he did, going 13-15 from the charity stripe.

Oh, and he’s a free agent in the summer. I honestly have no idea if the Jazz signing Kemba is a realistic possibility or a pipe dream. The Jazz have no history whatsoever with signing a free agent with as good as a track record of production as Walker: Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur were young up-and-comers, and Joe Johnson was, well, the opposite. They notably failed to re-sign Gordon Hayward.

But there are those in the Jazz organization that swear that they’re going to get a notable free agent one of these offseasons, maybe this one, a player that eclipses what the team has done before. They’ve had the interest, they say — the notable example of Kyle Lowry, who they allegedly had to turn down in order to chase Hayward. Walker would be such a player: he’s a 3-time All-Star, a fantastic shooter, someone who could take pressure off Mitchell and vice versa, but still can run a team.

It sounds like Walker’s unlikely to stay in Charlotte: the performance of his teammates tonight is just another example as to the lack of help he’s consistently had throughout his entire eight-year tenure. I think it’s far more likely that Walker signs with another team; maybe joining other stars in L.A. or New York, but there’s a world in which those salary slots are filled and Utah’s a reasonable option.

3. “They are both us.”

Quin Snyder was asked about how he got the Charlotte’s 3-point attack to shoot just 1-21 to begin the game, and whether or not he was disappointed with the 6-9 3-point stretch that followed. I thought the next answer was revealing:

“It’s kind of like the questions I get about the first half of our season and the second half of our season. They are both us,” Snyder said. “Shooting over time, they aren’t going to stay cold that long.”

There are things that the Jazz can do to defend the 3-point line, sure. But you could defend the line with five Kawhi Leonards and they’re still just going to make way more than 4.8% on average. In fact, there’s a lot of good research that defending the 3-ball is much more about limiting attempts than it is percentage; whether or not the shots go in isn’t really highly correlated from year-to-year, for example.

The same is true with the Jazz’s schedule. Early in the year, they had a disappointing record. Some of that was due to a difficult schedule, and some of that was them legitimately playing poorly. Now, they’ve won 10 of their last 11 games against an easy schedule. Which team is the real Jazz? “They are both us.” The Jazz are both their strengths and their weaknesses, a lot of which quite frankly haven’t changed much at all over the course of 82 games.

I do feel like the living embodiment of this XKCD comic. I fall in this trap all of the time, even when I try very hard not to:

Tonight, the randomness favored the Jazz. Recently, in both schedule and playoff performance, it’s been doing that a lot. But I don’t feel substantially different about this team than I did 10 games ago, either. They’re good! Probably not great. But pretty good.

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