The Triple Team: Jazz’s plan comes together for great defensive game, but the offense just can’t make the shots

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Jae Crowder (99) pauses for a quiet moment before his warm up in Game 3 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Rockets in Salt Lake City, Saturday, April 20, 2019.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 104-101 loss to the Houston Rockets from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. It’s a make or miss league

The Jazz played so, so well on Saturday night. They made life exceptionally tough for James Harden, maybe the best defensive performance on him all year. They stopped a lot of the open shots that they were giving up in the first two games. The offense got open looks through some excellent execution and passing.

But, as the saying goes, “It’s a make or miss league.” And the Jazz can’t consistently make, which gave the Rockets the critical Game 3 win.

Many of those shots were corner threes: the Jazz shot just 4-18, or 22%, on those. 18 corner threes is more than any team has taken this playoffs in any game, to give you an idea of what a good percentage of shots that is. Jazz’s average is on the season is about 37.5% on those, that’s about league average too. The Jazz win this game if they hit two more corner threes.


Or, they could have won this game through the free-throw line. While the rest of the game was fine, a bad third quarter saw them miss eight free-throws. Obviously, make half of those, and the Jazz win the game. If they shoot 74% for the game, their team average on the year, they win.

Heck, you can even do this with the shots from 4-14 feet: Jazz made only one of eight of those. 12.5%. This won’t shock you, but usually, NBA teams make more than that.

My sense, too, was that more of the threes were wide open than usual. The NBA’s tracking numbers have yet to be released, but I’ll be watching that carefully when they are early Sunday. But after the Jazz shot just 7-32 on wide-open shots in Game 2, it seemed like a similar story in Game 3.

Update: The tracking numbers are in, and they are ugly. The Jazz shot just 4 of 26 on wide-open shots last night (defined as shots with the closest defender at least six feet away). That’s 15%. That’s incredible. Imagine how frustrating that must be for Quin Snyder and his coaching staff, setting up his players for a win if only they’d just make a reasonable number of open shots. But no.

There are obviously things the Jazz could have done better, there always is. But for the most part, it was that the shots didn’t fall, at the season’s most critical juncture. You could point to the need for more shooting on the roster, and I think that’s fair, but ultimately, the Jazz would have won if they could just hit shots at their season averages.

Remember, these same Houston Rockets missed 27 consecutive threes in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals last year. If anyone knows this pain, it’s them. But tonight, it was the Jazz on the other end of it.

2. Donovan Mitchell’s step-up performance, and fade late

Donovan Mitchell had his best game of the series, scoring 34 points, getting to the free-throw line whenever he wanted, and keeping his turnovers low. The Jazz heavily relied on Mitchell, as he played 42 minutes.

Mitchell was fantastic early, starting the game 5-7 from the field while hitting inside and out. The Rockets started to be more aggressive with him during these successes, but I thought he did a really nice job of adjusting to draw the fouls and get to the free-throw line: 17 attempts is an excellent number. Of course, he would have liked to make more than 12 of them.

He did force things late, finishing the game 4-20, but had one of the best game-tying looks you’ll ever see here. I really like this play by Quin Snyder: essentially, he bunched everyone up along that sideline until there was almost certain to be confusion and miscommunication in a loud crowd. Mitchell got the open look, but missed it.

Afterwards, Mitchell was pretty distraught. Naturally, his teammates supported him on the court and after the game. Kyle Korver, after going through his normal postgame press scrum, actually asked to say one more thing. Cameras and microphones went back on, and Korver said this:

"I have never been around a young player like Donovan Mitchell. I have never seen someone so young take ownership of a team, take ownership of his play, do it with charisma, do it with class. Never seen that in my 16 years in the NBA.

“He missed a tough shot tonight, but it’s just going to be part of his story,” Korver continued. "If you’ve played any meaningful basketball in the NBA, you have a shot like that. If you don’t, that means you haven’t played in meaningful games, or you haven’t been trusted by your teammates or coaches to take that shot. I don’t care who it is in history, everyone has a shot they want back. This is going to be part of the story at the end of the day.

"Because of who he is, he’s going to put too much on that shot, but we missed free-throws, we missed dunks, we missed layups, we missed threes. It was not about that shot. It was not about that shot. We had so many more chances to win that game.

“But I’m super proud of him. He came out and like, he heard that he hadn’t played as well as he wanted to in the first couple of games, and he put the whole thing on his back. For a young guy, 21 years old or whatever he is, that’s really special. He is on a great path in the NBA. At the end of the day, this is just going to be part of his story, part of his journey. He’s just going to keep building on it.”

Korver is great for wanting to deliver that message, and he’s right: Mitchell is a unique force. That Korver has “never” been around a young player like Mitchell in a 16-year NBA career certainly says something.

Mitchell’s going to get some hate after this playoff series, especially from people outside of Utah. But the Jazz are still in a pretty good place overall, and the biggest reason is everything that Mitchell is.

3. Quin Snyder’s plan comes to fruition

Snyder’s gotten some criticism for his defensive plan in this series, but it worked incredibly well tonight. I know the Jazz lost, and I know James Harden isn’t going to go 3-20 in most games, but man, did they ever make life tough for the Rockets tonight.

The biggest thing was how frequently the Jazz just nailed their rotations. The Jazz frequently forced Harden downhill right into the waiting arms of Rudy Gobert, which has been a problem for Utah. But this time, the Jazz got into the body of Clint Capela and took away the corner three by having the defender sink deep.

Look at Harden’s options here, he doesn’t have many. That gives Gobert the chance to make a play, and, well this is an incredibly tough block.

The Rockets, because they’re good, adjusted. They went to their smallball lineup with P.J. Tucker playing center, lovingly called “The Tuckwagon” by Rockets fans. (I think it’s a good name, to be honest.) But the Jazz adapted. Gobert guarded Tucker, but didn’t always help from the strong side. Instead, now Rubio helped from the weak side, again making Harden’s pass away difficult. This play worked for the Rockets, but the Jazz broke up the next one, and the Rockets didn’t really rely on the look much after that.

It was really impressive on both ends: the Jazz’s excellent defensive performance, and that the Rockets won the game anyway. This wasn’t a Jazz win, so obviously, they were devastated after the game. But I agree with Snyder when he said, “I thought we laid it out there and I was proud about how we played and how we competed, we just didn’t get a win tonight to reflect that.... Offensively, we didn’t have as good of a night that we needed to win the game.”

Now, they face the brink.