The Triple Team: Donovan Mitchell and Jazz offense run into a wall in Game 5, negating another excellent defensive performance

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) loses the ball to Houston Rockets forward PJ Tucker (17) during the second half in Game 5 of an NBA basketball playoff series, in Houston, Wednesday, April 24, 2019. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Three thoughts on the Jazz’s 100-93 loss to the Houston Rockets from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Donovan Mitchell runs into the wall

Before Game 3, I asked Quin Snyder about what he wanted to see from Donovan Mitchell offensively.

“His ability to attack, to be definitive. Then, to not just have his head down," Snyder said then. "It’s not a question of just ‘run through a wall.’ It’s running with force, but then avoiding the wall, so to speak. That’s another way to run through it.”

Time and time again tonight, Mitchell ran into the wall. Frustrated by running into it, he ran into it harder.

Take this play. He gets the switch he wants here, attacking James Harden. But Harden stays in front thanks to his strength, then stays with Mitchell as he jumps and blocks the shot relatively easily. It’s good defense, but Mitchell needs a second option here in mind as he drives, especially as his gather was so contested.

Here, he does have the option to kick it out to Ingles for a corner three, but doesn’t take it, instead preferring the contested bank shot.

And on perhaps the most important possession of the season — down 1, less than a minute left to go — Mitchell drove into a paint with 10 arms waiting for him down there. Making matters worse, Mitchell committed a frustration foul, not giving the Jazz’s defense a chance to make a difference.

Mitchell finished with only 12 points on 4-22 shooting. He added five turnovers, and only one assist.

Look: the Jazz rely on Mitchell to an almost humorous degree to be a capable offensive team. That means the Rockets will focus on stopping him over every other defensive goal. It makes Mitchell’s life tougher, yes, but it should also be an opportunity for the Jazz; after all, if they’re collapsing five guys to stop Mitchell in the paint, there should be a few open players available.

He needs more help than he got tonight, but he also needs to be better. Typically, one of Mitchell’s strengths has been recognizing the difficulties he’s facing and adapting; he’s usually better in the second half of games than in the first half. But on Wednesday, he thought the solution was to try harder. It wasn’t.

Here’s the good news for Jazz fans: knowing Mitchell, this is going to drive him to improve this offseason. He’s going to work a ton on that jump shot, making it a weapon he can use when defenses are waiting in the paint. He’s going to work on handling high hedges and traps, including various dribble moves he can use to escape and create from them. He’s going to watch film of this loss, study what he did wrong, and avoid doing it again next year.

“I can tell you I’m upset and whatnot, but I’m going to be better,” Mitchell said. "I’ll be better.”

2. Quin is a defensive genius

Jazz head coach Quin Snyder got a ton of criticism for his defensive strategy early in the series, when the Jazz went down 2-0.

In the regular season, the Rockets had an offensive rating of 114.8. In the playoffs, the Jazz held that to 108.3. And in the last 3 games, as the Jazz got more practice at their defensive scheme, they limited it to just 100.3. That’s pretty incredible, actually.

The defense worked. James Harden was limited to just an 1-11 offensive start again, and though he found his shooting rhythm later in the game, he still finished with 26 points on 26 shots, adding five turnovers. The Jazz will take that all day long.

But in order to stop Harden, they didn’t have to give up a good offensive night to anyone else, either: Chris Paul had 15 points on 16 shots, with three turnovers. Eric Gordon scored 15 on 13 shots, adding three turnovers too. P.J. Tucker only had eight points on 7 shots, he had a turnover too. Clint Capela had a much better game, but you wouldn’t say he killed the Jazz either with his six baskets.

By the time the series ended, everyone on the Jazz was just nailing their spots: Royce O’Neale prevented the stepback and stuck with Harden as he drove left. Jazz perimeter players like Ricky Rubio, Joe Ingles, and Jae Crowder were doing their jobs, preventing Capela from getting to the basket, or zone-defending open shooters. And Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors were protecting the paint.

Ultimately, the Rockets scored at the end only through Harden hitting three consecutive floaters, while Chris Paul made some very tough shots from the midrange. They’re good players, they’re going to do that from time to time. But ultimately, Snyder should get a ton of credit for how effectively the Jazz defended in this series, especially in Games 3-5. They lost because they couldn’t score.

3. Difference between shooting percentages and good shooters

I thought SBNation’s Mike Prada had a very good point after this series.

The Jazz were the 10th best 3-point shooting team this year, believe it or not. They made 35.6% of them. This series, they went 46-179, or 26%. If they shoot reasonably in Game 3, more than 12-41, they win both games at home, and it’s a very different series. Tonight, the Jazz shot 9-38 from behind the arc, even worse than they did in Game 3: 23.7%. If they shoot reasonably tonight, they win.

Again, these are wide-open shots the Jazz are missing. In the first four games — tracking data for Game 5 is not yet available — 84 of them were wide open. The Jazz made 19 of them. They shot 22% for the series on wide open 3-point shots.

Why? There are many theories, but I come back to Prada’s: even though the Jazz have players with decent enough 3-point percentages, they don’t have many players that are actually known as shooters. Kyle Korver is, but he essentially couldn’t play in this series due to his knee and the Rockets’ switching defense.

Thabo Sefolosha shot 43.6% from 3 over the course of the year. He went 1-8 in the playoffs. That might be randomness, or that might be the fact that Sefolosha is not actually a good shooter, as he’s shown for much of his career. In fact, he’s hesitant to take shots he should.

You could say that last sentence about nearly every shooter on the Jazz’s roster other than Mitchell and perhaps Jae Crowder. Ingles passes up open looks, as does Rubio, as does O’Neale, as does Favors. But when the defense is already standing in the paint to prevent Mitchell from scoring, passing up open looks to drive where the defense is doesn’t work. You simply need to take and make those shots.

That’s the biggest thing on the Jazz’s offseason priority list: a reliable shotmaker capable of playing defense and finishing games. With one, this team will take the jump to the next level.

That concludes another year of Triple Teams, including the first with the Tribune. It is legitimately an honor to get the chance to do this for our readers: I grew up watching the Jazz and reading the great coverage in the Tribune the next morning over Cinnamon Life breakfast cereal, so to get the chance to combine those passions is a dream come true. I don’t take your readership lightly or for granted, it really does means a lot to me. A heartfelt ‘Thank you’ goes to all of you.