Jazz defense struggles again as Kings roll to 128-115 victory

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) shoots over Sacramento Kings forward Richaun Holmes (22) as the Utah Jazz hosts the Sacramento Kings, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Monday Oct. 14, 2019.

All those offseason moves the Jazz pulled off to make their offense far more formidable appear to have done exactly that.

Now, maybe the team can turn its attention to bolstering its ineffectual defense.

Utah’s counterintuitive preseason extended into Monday night’s penultimate game, as another point-scoring outburst proved unable to counteract the latest gates-open-to-the-fort effort on the other end, as the Sacramento Kings rolled to a 128-115 victory at Vivint Smart Home Arena.

And so, with the Jazz now having yielded 133, 128, and 128 points in their past three games, questions about how quickly they can get things turned around with just over a week until the start of the regular season have suddenly taken on some additional urgency.

“We needed to play with a better effort defensively. We’ve just got to be more determined on the defensive end. … We had spurts where we guarded, but that needs to be a focus for us,” coach Quin Snyder said. "... We gave up too many things. We gave up midrange shots that were uncontested, we gave up boards. It was too easy.”

True enough.

Though the final score was ultimately made more palatable by a late third-quarter surge from Utah’s bench unit and an early fourth-quarter stretch in which the Jazz matched Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neale against a Kings unit consisting entirely of reserves (and in a few cases, deep reserves), the fact remains that one of the league’s perennially elite defensive units was consistently abused in transition (24 points) and on the offensive glass (11 boards, 22 second-chance points yielded) for most of the night.

The game’s breakneck tendencies were apparent from the outset, as Sacramento hit 7 of 11 shots to start to get out to a 16-9 advantage. Utah, however, kept pace early, owing to its exceptional ball movement, especially from Ingles, who registered six assists in the opening quarter in spite of coming off the bench.

By the time the Jazz closed the opening period with a 38-37 advantage, fans in attendance could be forgiven for believing they were watching some NBA action circa 1984.

It didn’t stop there.

Sacramento eclipsed the 50-point plateau after a mere 15 minutes of game time, and — thanks to a 41-point period — totaled 79 by halftime. The Kings were helped along by seven offensive rebounds, five steals, four blocks, and 9 of 19 shooting from deep in the opening half.

Still, while there apparently remains much work for the Jazz to do in getting everyone acclimated to playing with one another, it wasn’t all doom and gloom.

Indeed, the early results of the offensive upgrade look especially promising.

Utah closed the second quarter with a unit that included Gobert, Mitchell, Conley, Ingles, and Bojan Bogdanovic, and had a witheringly successful stretch with it — even as the latter continues to appear not fully at ease yet.

Mitchell led the way on that end, totaling 22 points on 8-for-15 shooting. Gobert added 17 points, and Ingles and Jeff Green had a dozen apiece.

Though Snyder pointed out that Utah didn’t shoot the ball particularly well from deep (just 9 of 35 — 25.7%), that the team could still roll up 115 points in spite of that was encouraging.

Still, he cautioned against letting the improved offense try to mask a lack of intensity and execution on the other end.

“When we’re scoring — which we did — sometimes there’s a sense that that can be enough to win. I think we understand that — it’s just a question of applying it,” he said. “In that sense, tonight was a good night, in that some things got exposed.”

More encouraging to all involved, however, was the improved defensive effort in the third quarter, where the Kings were limited to 23 points.

“We kinda let them hit us in the mouth first — we had times like that last year; we’ve been hit in the mouth and we come back, but it’s hard to do that,” Mitchell said. “But we’ll be better at it. Fortunately it is preseason, but we’re not in here approaching it like it’s preseason. We have things to clean up. It’s about our sense of urgency. We have guys that want to do it, and you saw that in the second half.”

And while Gobert agreed that the physicality and urgency needed to improve, he was not particularly concerned that the defense would retain its sieve-like qualities into the regular season.

“The second half was better, and I think every game from now is gonna get better,” he said. “We don’t want to be thinking that we’re just going to flip a switch and all of a sudden we’re going to be the top defensive team in the league. We gotta keep grinding and keep getting better every game.”

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