Gordon Monson: Just how good can the Jazz become? Suspicions are growing.
Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley (10) shoots as Los Angeles Clippers' Ivica Zubac (40) and Landry Shamet (20) defend during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
After patting Clippers coach Doc Rivers on the chest, Jazz coach Quin Snyder left the floor on Wednesday night with steeled eyes, a set jaw and a gliding stride, looking as though he was headed somewhere — metaphorically, who knows where? — meaningful and purposeful, toward business that couldn’t, wouldn’t wait.
And so, the Jazz’s new journey under their no-nonsense nabob and nurturer, toward whatever they will become, whatever they will achieve in this early season, had continued against Los Angeles at Vivint Arena, with a 14-point win, their fourth triumph in five tries.
And the fresh mix of players — Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley, most especially, but also Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert and Joe Ingles, in their new collective altered state — went on familiarizing themselves with each other. Did they ever. The only thing throwing an anchor out regarding the victory was the necessary-to-note fact that Kawhi Leonard did not play. He sat out, completely healthy and wholly uninjured, on account of a raging two-word curse plaguing the NBA: load management.
The ones who suffer the most from that malady are the league’s customers — its fans, you know, the folks who buy the tickets to watch the best players on the planet actually play. It’s a sorry joke, but one to fully dissect another day.
The Jazz did the only thing they could do — beat whatever form their opponent took on the floor.
As they accomplished that, all of it combined as a precursor, not an absolute identifier, of what lies ahead for the most talented Jazz team in a decade, maybe two.
What did Snyder say afterward?
“We’ve got to get better.”
From the beginning, Snyder has instructed — warned, really — that these initial performances are vague indicators, an evolution more than a conclusion, as to what this Jazz team will be capable of by season’s end. In crude terms, the anticipated makeover will look comely, at times, and like a spackle job, at others.
Pay no attention to the 4-1 record glistening from behind the curtain.
Make no big premature deal over the impressive detail that the Jazz have held all five of their opponents thus far under 100 points.
“We’re working on it,” Snyder said of the defense.
“We just needed some urgency,” said Gobert, adding what he has repeated numerous times: “When we communicate … and have toughness, we can be the best defensive team in the league.”
At the other end, the hovering worries about missed shots — by Conley, in particular — and disjointed offense — turnovers — not only dissipated on Wednesday night, they were sucked out the giant vents at Vivint Arena into the cold darkness. Conley put 29 points on 11-for-17 shooting on the Clips, and scored 18 points in the third quarter alone.
As he did, the crowd chanted, “Conley … Conley … Conley,” and his teammates greeted him when he went to the bench. It was a nice moment. More significantly, it gave a glimpse of what the Jazz offense could become when the aforementioned talent rises up. Overall, the Jazz shot 55 percent, 46 from deep.
Mitchell continued his streak of effective and efficient play, scoring 24 points, making 10 of 17 shots. Bogdanovic contributed, Gobert contributed, Ingles contributed.
And so it was that Snyder’s recent tutorial that offense is a matter of instincts and defense a matter of habits emerged in the flesh on the court, with both the instinctual and habitual playing their parts. The Leonard-less Clippers — Paul George is still out, too — put up just 96 points and the Jazz collected 12 steals and five blocks.
The season remains in an embryonic stage, and that’s generally true for Snyder-coached outfits, which traditionally start on the slower side, so those absolute conclusions can’t be drawn. But suspicions are a different deal. There are a whole lot of those — and here they are laid out plainly:
• Offensive spacing will be greatly improved for one basic reason — the Jazz have more weapons from distance, which is exactly what they intended to gain with their offseason moves.
• Bogdanovic can flat shoot it. But he can do more — handle the ball, drive, pass, move, play with toughness. In some ways, the Jazz are using him the way they used Gordon Hayward in his prime. He can score in a variety of ways.
• Conley will be Conley. “He’s going to have a lot of nights like tonight,” Mitchell said after the Clippers game. “It felt great for him. It felt great for us.” Said Snyder: “That’s who he is.”
• Due to the improved spacing, Gobert either will break his dunk record from a year ago because defenders, preoccupied with their own man, will not be able to cheat down as often to crowd him, or he won’t, and Bogdanovic and Ingles will benefit greatly from the resultant freedom.
“Teams have difficult decisions to make,” Gobert said, without an ounce of empathy.
• The diminutive nature of the Jazz guard line — Mitchell was recently measured at 6-foot-1, Conley at 6-0 — will hurt them on occasion more at the defensive end than on attack. The reason is simple: Mitchell, for a guy of his height, plays big, able to go vertical on jumpers and runs and spins to the rim.
• The Jazz’s notion of position-less basketball is real, real effective. For those longtime Jazz fans who hold onto the antiquated notion of a point guard — John Stockton — always initiating the offense, and a power forward — Karl Malone — posted up and awaiting an entry pass, this will continue to shock their systems. Against the Clips, more than a fistful of players triggered the attack for the Jazz, turning the key on an offense that facilitated ball movement, ball sharing, resulting in a thousand open looks.
• Regardless of the point above, at the end of tight games, the ball most often will be in Mitchell’s hands, just as it was against Phoenix, when the guard was fouled with a second to play. For all of Snyder’s mastery, sometimes he just calls on Mitchell to do his thing, whatever that will be.
• Mitchell, as he said was his intention, is better, more efficient this time around. “I’m just finding gaps,” he said, “being patient, slowing down.”
• The Jazz defense, at its best, is nasty and authentic. Those preseason concerns already are vapor. There have been spans thus far of rugged resistance put up, indicating what might be possible on a regular basis in the months ahead.
“When we’re on the same page,” said Jeff Green, “it’s going to be a tough night for anybody.”
In the coming days, the Jazz will play the Clippers in L.A., presumably with Leonard in the lineup, the Sixers and the Bucks, and also a bunch of teams they wouldn’t lose to if they were forced to play in their socks and run backward the whole game. The true tests will be revealing.
Wherever Snyder was headed after the final buzzer sounded against the Clippers, it was not back to the drawing board. He saw enough, and has seen enough over the first five games, to partially satisfy his own suspicions, foremost among them that his team has, his players have, a chance to be pretty damn good this season.
“We all have the same goal,” said Gobert. “This year, everyone is sacrificing for that goal.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the same parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.