The Triple Team: Jazz defense still giving up big numbers, but taking steps to improve; Mitchell would “prefer to be 1-4 than 5-0”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) momentarily injures his finger as the Utah Jazz host the Portland Trailblazers in their NBA basketball game at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Wed. Oct. 16, 2019.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 126-118 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. I think the Jazz’s defense is improving

And by more than “well, 126 points allowed is better than 128 points allowed, right?” margins. I just spent an hour or so re-watching every Blazers basket, and rather than being depressed about the state of the defense, I think it’s closer to normal than it seemed on first glance.

First of all, the Jazz did a relatively good job of forcing the Blazers into the kinds of shots they want them to take. Here is the Blazers’ shot distribution tonight, per Cleaning The Glass:

Cleaning the Glass

Forcing the Blazers to only take 16 shots at the rim is good. Forcing them to only take 27 shots from deep is also good, they averaged 31 per game last season. Forcing them to take 40 shots from the midrange is well done.

It’s just that the Blazers have some killers from mid-range, especially tonight. You know what CJ McCollum is capable from there, but players like Zach Collins, Skal Labissiere, and Rodney Hood also had pretty good shooting nights on those shots. Hood hit a contested fadeaway two over Gobert to start the game, and it seemed like the rest was history.

And then the Blazers made 56% from 3. These weren’t wide open shots, in fact, the NBA’s hustle data said 22 of the 27 shots were contested. (Meanwhile, just 15 of the Jazz’s 30 threes were contested by Portland.) Again, the Blazers have some pretty phenomenal 3-point shooters, but that McCollum went 5-7 and Lillard went 3-4 is a pretty great night for both.

And there were individual possessions which were beautiful. This one is perfect weakside rotation by the Jazz, turning a Lillard drive, which looks like it’s going to be a corner 3, into something much better.

That’s nice, and something to build on.

2. Jazz lose containment, inside and out

Here’s where I thought the Jazz got themselves in trouble, though: they started letting players past them that they shouldn’t have.

McCollum gets by Gobert here with relative ease:

It looks like Gobert’s fault, and, well, it is: he can’t get beaten that easily. I get why he’s lurching towards McCollum, he wants to prevent the midrange jump shot, but it’s still not a great look. Alex Jensen, Gobert’s positional coach up in the top of your screen, is clearly upset.

But he has to get some help from Emmanuel Mudiay. Mudiay’s guarding one of the best scorers in the league, he can’t be beaten by five feet to the screen from a dead stop. If he’s closer to McCollum early, McCollum has less space to take advantage of when he meets Gobert later.

Mike Conley and Royce O’Neale both were just beaten on baseline drives individually here:

Both are anticipating the screen towards the middle, and that’s why they lose the slightest advantage at the beginning of the possession. But it’s hard to play effective team defense when these kinds of individual offensive plays are enough.

3. Overall preseason thoughts

So, the Jazz went 1-4 this preseason, but it was a 0-4 record against NBA teams. How much does it matter?

If you look at the preseason record from last year, not much. The Golden State Warriors, a Finals team, went 1-4. The Boston Celtics, a four seed last year, went 1-3. (On the other hand, maybe you can argue both teams underperformed relative to their lofty expectations.) The very bad Charlotte Hornets and Washington Wizards both went 4-1, even the Knicks had an above .500 3-2 record.

But if you ask these Jazz players, they don’t care about their record. They are stung by their preseason performance. It matters to them.

“Preseason record, nobody cares about it to be honest,” Gobert said. “The most important thing is the way we play. Right now, we feel like we didn’t play the way we want to play. Maybe everyone thought it was going to be easy, we signed a few guys, and we think everything is going to be great. That’s not the way that it works.”

Mitchell went so far as to say he likes the slow start for what it does to the mentality of the team.

“I’d prefer to be 1-4 than 5-0, to be honest with you. One puts more of an urgency. You saw how we started last year. It puts more of a spotlight on what we need to do,” Mitchell said. In my three years here, this is the preseason where I think we’ve all been on the same page as far as ‘look, this is what we need to do.’"

I thought Gobert had a succinct statement about how the team will need to approach things differently in the regular season.

“It’s the NBA, and every team that comes into our building wants to kick our a--,” he said. “When you’re a good team, that’s what it is. It’s on us to kick their a--. First of all, to defend our home court, and every time we step on the court, to be the team that we can be."

They’ll need that mentality against Oklahoma City, to not just play reactive defensive, but proactive defense. They have a week to get in that shape.

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