Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 103-100 win over the Milwaukee Bucks from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. 2.3 seconds of the best that basketball has to offer
The game was tied at 100, and it was Milwaukee ball. The Bucks had a chance to win the game.
But Rudy Gobert watches a lot of basketball, including games in which the Eastern Conference’s best team plays. So he knew what was coming.
“Every time I’ve watched them play, they run that play,” Gobert said. “To me, there was two options, either Kyle was going to come off Brook, then Kyle was going to screen me and they’d pass to Brook, or Middleton was going to curl to the corner. I saw him go, and I saw Royce was hit by the screen, so I had to go.”
The arm of Gobert dissuaded Middleton from taking the shot mid-air. He traveled, giving the Jazz the ball with 1.3 seconds left. It was a game-changing play.
With a timeout to spare, the Jazz knew what play they wanted to run: it was one they had finished their shootaround with. But knowing how the Bucks were guarding them, Bojan Bogdanovic wanted to edit the play to get him open in the corner, rather than Mike Conley. Bogdanovic suggested that Conley go to the corner on the opposite side, but Conley thought he should stay at midcourt, to give Bogey more space and to be an emergency inbound option.
From there, Bogdanovic had a read to make: “I have an option to run to the high quadrant and have a shot or slip to the corner,” he said. The play also features interior options for Donovan Mitchell to catch a lob pass at the rim, or Gobert to flash inside and have a good look, but the Jazz didn’t need those: Bogdanovic was open in the corner. Ingles found him, and the Jazz’s best perimeter shooter knocked it down. With Khris Middleton top-locking Bogdanovic, it was a simple cut to the corner that got him open with the rest of the chaos of the play.
Those 2.3 seconds are everything that basketball can be. At the simplest level, we saw the best defensive player in the NBA making a play, and a terrific shooter hitting a game winning shot. But to put those players in position to do what they do best took preparation: Gobert’s hours of watching film, the play being practiced the morning before the game, and the years of experience of Bogdanovic and Conley to know how the Bucks would react in that situation.
All that work created one moment of sheer elation, for 20,000 people in the arena and the hundreds of thousands of other Jazz fans watching on TV. Basketball is brilliant.
2. The Jazz played really terrific defense tonight
Yes, there was that quarter where the Jazz allowed the Bucks to score 39 points. But even taking that into account, the Jazz allowed a team which came into the game with a league-leading offense to score only 93.5 points per 100 possessions. They average 112 points per 100.
How? Well, for long stretches of the game, they frustrated Giannis Antetokounmpo to a frankly ridiculous degree. The reigning MVP had two points on 0-7 shooting in the first half, and was a game-low -17 when he was out on the court. That he turned it around in the second half and scored 28 is a wildly impressive accomplishment, but that the Jazz only allowed 35 points in the first half ended up being enough to win the game.
The strategy was basically this: build a wall to prevent Giannis from driving. Ideally, help off the Bucks’ least-reliable shooters. Once he passes, close out so it’s a semi-contested three. Here, it works to aplomb: Antetokounmpo sees four bodies in front of him in transition, so he passes to Sterling Brown, who hesitates on the closeout before taking a bad shot over Georges Niang.
Sometimes, the Bucks didn’t make it so easy, they attacked those closeouts in order to start their own version of the blender. But the Jazz rotated well. Here, they dedicate two guys to making sure Antetokounmpo doesn’t get to the rim, forcing him to make a second pass and ultimately a turnover.
In the third quarter, the transition defense was much more lax, and so the wall never got built. Antetokounmpo had 21 points. But they were so good in the other quarters of the game (okay, and lucky: the Bucks only made 21% of their threes tonight) that they were able to make up for it.
3. Offense is showing flashes, but is far too inconsistent
We should note that it is somewhat discouraging that the Jazz needed a buzzer beater to win a game in which they had a 93 defensive rating, but that’s been par for the course this season for Utah. In the Jazz’s defense, they were playing the Bucks, last year’s No. 1 or 2 defensive team; they don’t make things easy.
The biggest problem was again the turnovers; tonight the Jazz had 20. The biggest culprit was Donovan Mitchell, who had eight of them. That’s a little ironic: Forbes writer Ben Dowsett even asked Snyder before the game about how Mitchell had cut his turnover rate so drastically this season to only 1.8 per game. Naturally, then Mitchell threw up an 8-ball of them. Friday night’s Mitchell looked back to his inefficient ways, although he did at least have six assists with some brilliant passes early. The Bucks adapted, though, and Mitchell never figured it out really.
But the first half 55-point performance was nice.
“We basically ran one play all first half and made reads off of it, and improvised it and changed things,” Conley said after the game. We added backdoor cuts, made reads. We did a better job of trusting each other and running our offense."
That’s somewhat encouraging. Also encouraging: the Jazz got a ton of open threes tonight, taking 36 of them. To some extent, that’s the Bucks’ defensive strategy, but it’s the second most the Jazz have had in a game this year, behind the 37 they took in the first Sacramento Kings game, which was played by a team that clearly just didn’t care. This Bucks team did, and for a little bit, they had some good things going.
You get the sense that if the Jazz can ever have a game where they can get three of the Conley, Mitchell, Bogdanovic, and Gobert group going all at once, that they’ll be take the offensive leap. Friday night, they only had Bogdanovic and Conley, and it was just barely enough.