Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 100-95 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. The defense won the game for the Jazz
After being, by far, the worst defensive team in the league in the preseason, the Jazz locked down in Game 1.
As the Jazz limited the Thunder to 12 first-quarter points, I kept thinking of Joe Ingles. In practice Tuesday, somebody asked Ingles whether he was worried about the Jazz coming out to a slow start defensively in this game. After all, the Jazz had started slowly in nearly every game in preseason, and they were going to have a break of about a week. Would there be rust?
Ingles said something like “If you had seen what we’d done in practice over the last week, you’d have no concerns whatsoever about that.”
The Jazz were dominant defensively early and late. In the middle, they sent the Thunder to the free-throw line too often, but otherwise played really good defense. Over the aggregate, the Jazz allowed the Thunder to score 95 points in 100 possessions, including only 34 points in the paint. They shot only 41% on those shots, including just 7-20 on shots at the rim.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who to credit here: Rudy Gobert. He had the game’s best plus-minus as well, and looked near or at his best on the defensive end. He contested 19 shots during the game, according to NBA.com’s count; his four teammates in the starting lineup contested 21. He is a one-man game-changing force, and it’s sometimes remarkable to watch him work. Opponents just throw up wild chances and hope for the best.
But he’s not the only one. Royce O’Neale, starting at the four, did some really nice things inside in terms of defending without fouling. This is a really nice anticipation and defensive play.
Remember, O’Neale measured at 6-4, but he’s still capable at stopping one of the biggest centers in the league at the rim. He was phenomenal tonight.
2. Donovan Mitchell’s efficiency makes up for Mike Conley’s stinker
There is a certain subset of Jazz fans who never watch anything but Jazz games. And when they do, they focus on Jazz players, to the extent where sometimes they’re unaware of the quality of the opposition.
To those fans, I promise: Mike Conley is a good player.
You wouldn’t know it after tonight’s game. In fact, in his first game in a Jazz uniform, he put up one of the 10 worst shooting performances in Jazz history. The list is kind of fun, so here’s the list.
Derrick Favors went 0-13 once? How? Karl Malone matched Conley’s 1-16? I guess that was late-career Malone when he was awfully reliant on the midrange jumper, but still. Gordon Hayward went 1-17, that wasn’t great. How did Milt Palacio and Trey Burke shoot so poorl—oh wait, no one is confused by that.
Anyway, Conley will be fine. He missed a lot of open shots, including threes and his signature right-handed floater. He still contributed at the defensive end. And when he made the free throw that sealed the game, he endeared himself to the crowd by asking for their support on his fourth point of the night. He’s self-aware, but with a sense of humor. It’s great.
Conley was saved by Donovan Mitchell’s efficiency, though. He was a monster tonight, carrying the Jazz offensively with 32 points on 14-22 shooting. Some of his finishes are just absurd... his highlight reel in Game 1 would outshine the highlight reel for 80% of the NBA’s entire season.
Given that we’re writing off Conley’s performance as only one game, I think it’s also fair to say that Mitchell probably won’t always be this great throughout the season; “only one game” still applies. But there are more reasons to believe Mitchell’s performance shows some signs for his future play, and he looked to make very good reads tonight,
That was especially true while attacking Danilo Gallinari of the Thunder. In the last possession of the first half, Mitchell gets the ball and looks to run down the clock. Knowing that the Jazz want to run pick and roll with Gallinari’s man, they have him “preswitch” out to the perimeter. So Mitchell just calls for Gallo’s new man to set the screen, he finds the gap he wants, and boy, did he ever attack it.
It’s aggressive, yes, but it’s smart, too. It’s great to see.
3. Emmanuel Mudiay has the right mentality
Emmanuel Mudiay was the Jazz’s seventh man tonight, and maybe their best bench player.
I’ve been pretty skeptical of Mudiay’s projected production this offseason. I’ve raised this point again and again; he is the one Knick that their fans called their “Tank Commander" out of all of the bad Knicks, because of the things he consistently messed up. Defense? He’d die on screens, and not give second efforts. He’d attack in transition, despite having two or three players back, and end up missing the layup as he tried to avoid the contact. He’d miss open players on his wild drives, and if he didn’t do that, he’d take midrange jumpers. He was actually pretty good at these, but often took them early in possessions, when his team could have used more patience. And he turned the ball over a ton, sometimes more than any player in the league.
And then he came out in the Jazz’s first game and did these things really sparingly. He played very strong, tough defense, earning 23 minutes on the court. He had five assists, tied for most on the Jazz with Conley, including a couple of really nice ones.
That’s good vision, and smart, too!
And then when he attacked, he went into the body of the rim protectors, not shy to create contact. He never went to the line, but he did make space for himself.
Oh, and he had zero turnovers. In his 246-game career, do you know how many times Mudiay has shot over 50% from the field, had at least five assists, and had zero turnovers? Just three.
Again, the “only one game” mantra applies here. Mudiay has been a bad player for much longer than he has been a good one. But there are some signs that being in the Jazz’s player development system has helped Mudiay, and it will be interesting to see if he can keep up what he’s learned. If he does, the Jazz’s bench is much stronger.