Jazz overcome sloppy start, cruise past Memphis 126-112

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) grabs a rebound from Memphis Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr. (13) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/George Frey)

Halfway through the second quarter, the Jazz were running a 2-on-1 break when Donovan Mitchell lofted a pass up high for Jeff Green, who was flying in from the right side. He clanked the dunk attempt off the rim, then stood and stared at the crowd in disbelief.

A mere 10 seconds later though, Royce O’Neale stole the ball, took off downcourt, spotted Green in perfect position for another alley-oop attempt, and didn’t hesitate to lob it up to the veteran forward again. This time, Green threw it down, and again took a moment before the roaring audience, though this time to jokingly exult in properly finishing things off.

That sequence was a perfect little microcosm of Saturday’s game at Vivint Smart Home Arena, as the Jazz shook off some early miscues to ultimately play fast and loose and blow past the Grizzlies, racking up a 126-112 victory.

They kept up the fast-and-loose vibe in the locker room afterward (“The Jeff Green I grew up watching would have caught that!” Mitchell jokingly lamented when reminded he lost a potential assist in the sequence) and for good reason — they’d just snapped a three-game losing streak and put at least a temporary halt to an awful stretch that saw them drop five of six overall.

Mitchell led seven players in double-digit scoring with 22 points, while Rudy Gobert contributed 19 points, 11 rebounds, and five dimes. Green drilled five triples off the bench to add 19 points, while Joe Ingles — starting again for the still-injured Mike Conley — had arguably his sparkiest outing of the season, with 12 points, 10 assists, and four steals.

Utah is now 13-10 on the season.

“It felt good to get back on a winning track. The way we played today was the way we’re supposed to play,” Green said. “… We just had to look ourselves in the mirror and figure it out as individuals, how to better the team by doing your job.”

Following Wednesday’s blowout loss to the Lakers, who were playing on the second night of a back-to-back and had several key players fighting illness, the Jazz spoke urgently of the need to improve their communication, limit their turnovers, fortify their transition defense.

But after the first quarter against the Grizzlies, it seemed very much like a case of words with no corresponding deeds.

Utah trailed 36-32 after those opening 12 minutes of play against a Memphis team that came in ranked 25th in offense and missing star guard Ja Morant, but which managed to shoot 66.7% overall and make 5 of 10 from 3-point range.

The Jazz’s communication was nonexistent, the defense was listless, the bench unit outperformed, the turnovers plentiful (six, to be exact).

Whatever coach Quin Snyder told his group between the quarters, however, seemed to ignite the spark they needed.

For starters, the offense went highly efficient to downright incendiary, as they drilled 8 of their first 10 shots, including 5 of 6 from deep to begin the quarter on a 25-4 run and turn that deficit into a 57-40 advantage.

Furthermore, the leaky defense that plagued the team early got tightened up significantly.

After the Grizzlies shot 14 of 21 overall and 5 of 10 from 3 in the first, they went just 7 of 19 and 2 of 10, respectively, in the second.

“We’ve just got to keep working defensively,” Snyder said. “… I think our communication defensively continues to [to be] a key for us. I think it manifested itself.”

The result? A 69-54 halftime lead that finally seemed somewhat indicative of how the team should be performing.

Despite making only 4 of their final 11 shots, Utah still shot 60.5% overall for the half. They also hit 11 of 19 from deep. They assisted on 16 of their 23 baskets, led on the boards 18-13, and only committed three turnovers in the second quarter.

Naturally, the Jazz couldn’t make it through the third without some of their usual issues rearing up again. Nine midrange floaters attempted, after only four in the first half; Emmanuel Mudiay struggling to maintain control of the ball, en route to five Utah turnovers.

In the end, though, despite committing 22 turnovers in the game and allowing the Grizzlies to shoot 53% from the field, the Jazz were sufficiently brilliant at the rim (Gobert threw down five dunks) and lethal from 3-point range (19 of 34 for the game) to keep adequate distance between themselves and their opponents.

“The paint and the 3s — that’s the team we want to be. The turnovers are mostly because we lacked physicality and force, especially in the first quarter,” Gobert said. “Once we took that away, we really got going.”