The Triple Team: Gap between Jazz and championship contention on display in loss to Lakers

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) and Utah Jazz forward Bojan Bogdanovic (44) wait on a rebound in the first half during an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 121-96 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. The gap between the Jazz and the elite feels very large

Truth be told, I thought the Jazz played much better tonight, at least when compared to their last four performances. They shot 45% from three, got to the rim frequently, forced the Lakers into tough shots most of the time, etc. They were actually playing relatively good basketball.

And they still entered halftime down 18 points. To a team that was playing at altitude on a back to back, with a player (Anthony Davis) who was so sick and tired yesterday that he needed an IV at halftime. Yes, the Jazz didn’t have Mike Conley, but it doesn’t feel like he would have made a tremendous difference given his play this season so far.

The Lakers, by the way, are great. They heard every bit of the criticism that they had an easy schedule coming into a back to back in Denver and Salt Lake City, and demolished both teams. LeBron James is LeBron James, still casually dominating whole games, but the real highlight here is Davis, who is a freak of nature. He’s been the best rim protector in the game this season, but also controls things on the perimeter, while also being essentially unstoppable defensively.

I thought their supporting cast would be a huge problem, it has not been. They’ve somehow turned this group of players who have been league laughingstocks into quality role players. Dwight Howard’s somehow playing at like 80% of peak MVP candidate Dwight, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope somehow discovered how to be an effective defender and role player, Javale McGee somehow has become very useful, Rajon Rondo somehow can shoot now, and Alex Caruso has somehow turned into an athletic wonder and clear difference maker. Last year, those players were jokes. This year, they’ve been great.

Meanwhile, the Jazz are so far away right now, on every level. Their role players can’t seem to contribute anything: they scored just 19 bench points despite having a long stint of garbage time tonight. Ed Davis might be the exception to this, he’s been good since coming back from injury.

And then there’s this: Donovan Mitchell isn’t LeBron James, and Rudy Gobert isn’t Anthony Davis.

The only way the Jazz are going to have a chance in these playoffs is if they come together to have a synergistic group of five on the floor. They don’t have the best top-tier talent, they don’t have the best bottom-tier talent, but they do have really good mid-tier talent (at least on paper, though obviously Conley and Joe Ingles have struggled). The only way you can take advantage of talented third-best through fifth-best players on your roster is if everyone is playing as a unit, but the Jazz haven’t done that so far.

This isn’t to say that they can’t get themselves together throughout this season and make a run at it. In fact, I fully expect they’ll figure stuff out, get to at least 50 wins, and come into the playoffs on a high.

But that’s not enough anymore. To win in the late stages of the playoffs, they need to be better than these Lakers. And right now, they’re so far away.

“We aren’t playing like it right now, but (the Lakers) is the standard the we want to have for ourselves," Rudy Gobert said. "Tonight we saw that team. Every minute on the court, they take everything seriously. That has not been us.”

2. Jazz getting killed in transition

The Lakers had a very clear 32-5 advantage in fast break points tonight. Given that the Jazz lost by 25, it’s pretty easy to tell why they lost.

Turnovers, obviously, are part of the problem. The Jazz had 20 of those tonight, which led to 21 Lakers points. Here’s an example which almost shows two turnovers at once: Ingles was lucky to get the ball back the first time.

The first giveaway is a product of the Lakers’ length and Ingles’ carelessness. Ingles has to know that a looping pass over Dwight Howard isn’t likely to work. The second one is a result of a lack of communication: someone has to tell Ingles that Rondo is coming.

And then, of course, there’s the James dunk. It’s always likely to end up in points, but it definitely ends up in points because Niang spends an extra beat not running back. The result is a 4-on-2 — conversion rates for 4-on-2s are so, so much higher than 4-on-3s.

But of course, that 21 points after turnovers doesn’t tell the full story. Those extra transition points after misses are a real problem. This kind of thing is inexcusable:

Who does Jeff Green think he’s guarding here, LeBron? Bojan Bogdanovic was guarding him the entire first quarter. It’s not his matchup. What happened?

Or this play at the end of the first quarter: Ingles passes up the open three early, probably because he wants to take the last shot of the quarter. But then he takes a bad floater two seconds later, the Lakers rebound it, and they’re immediately off. Kyle Kuzma hits a buzzer beating three.

It’s, straight up, a lack of focus on a possession by possession basis.

“I think in the beginning of the year there was a determination and a focus defensively and it showed,” Quin Snyder said. “More recently, we’ve allowed other things, whether it be a missed shot, the perception of a bad call, a turnover—everything is lingering. Our inability to get to the next play I think has hurt our defense and that, not being collectively focused on something, requires five guys playing together.”

That’s Snyder calling out his players, to some extent. It’s his way of agreeing with Gobert: "Every minute on the court, they take everything seriously. That has not been us.”

3. Lack of communication

The Jazz were beaten by the same play three times in a two-minute span in the third quarter. It’s not even really a play, just a screen. Here’s a cut of all three plays:

This kind of mistake shouldn’t happen at all, but it’s understandable if it happens once. Players make mistakes, encounter new situations, and you figure out ways to fix it.

It absolutely can not happen three times. That is inexcusable. After the first time, you have to have a conversation — or even just a realization! — that the team needs to guard against the cut. Furthermore, guarding the paint always, always needs to be priority No. 1.

Mitchell said that Bogdanovic and he got into a pretty heated discussion about what was going on, which both men were actually fine with: this is too important to settle with niceties. But the communication needs to come much earlier.

It’s also one of those things that you’d never see from last year’s team, where they had so much continuity. They miss that in a big way.