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The Triple Team: The Jazz played brilliantly for 40 minutes, exceptionally poorly for 8, and squeaked out a win over Orlando

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) celebrates with Utah Jazz forward Bojan Bogdanovic (44) their 109-102 win after hosting the Orlando Magic in their NBA basketball game at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. Dec. 17, 2019.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 109-102 win over the Orlando Magic from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. It was the best of times

There were long stretches of this game in which the Jazz looked like an elite team in the NBA.

Their ball movement was, at times, sublime. This is overpassing, but it is also basketball bliss: Donovan Mitchell drives, kicks it to Bojan Bogdanovic, who swings it to Royce O’Neale, who swings it to Joe Ingles, who finds Mitchell in the corner. There has never been a play that more succinctly wraps up the “pass the ball and you’ll get better shots yourself” Platonic ideal.

The offense was fluid, too. Actions led to advantages which led to larger advantages. Here, Mike Conley and Bogdanovic run pistol action to try to get Bogdanovic an open three, which he passes up. But then, Bogdanovic uses points behind his back to tell Conley to make the cut. Bogey sets a little bump screen, giving Conley an advantage on Fultz before he starts the pick and roll with Rudy Gobert. That means Vucevic has to step up, and that means Gobert’s open for the lob dunk.

Too often this season, the Jazz’s offense has looked like a disjointed set of unrelated options, but that wasn’t the case for the majority of tonight. They looked fluid. They moved the ball. They got good shots. They knocked them down. In short, The Blender™ was working.

Also encouraging: the defense looked great, too. The Magic ended up with a 104 ORtg, and again, save for one critical stretch, they looked much worse than that. The Jazz rarely let the Magic shoot at the rim, with only 20 attempts down there. They took only two corner threes. There was a whole lot of midrange fallaway stuff. This, for example, was the Magic’s first possession of the game.

Terrific defense by Conley. To be honest, I thought he was the catalyst for a lot of what the Jazz did so well tonight, at least with the starting unit on the floor. And so it’s a shame that a hamstring injury forced him to leave the game in the fourth quarter, with unknown severity.

2. It was the worst of times

And despite so much of what the Jazz did well tonight, they were horrendous for eight minutes, which put all of the good things in jeopardy. With 40 seconds left in the 3rd quarter, they had a 16-point lead. And with 4:44 left in the fourth, they were down seven points. It was a 32-8 Magic run.

Teams will lose the vast majority of games in which they allow 32-8 runs, because it’s really difficult to be at least 25 points better than the other team for a stretch of 40 minutes. The Jazz were, which is promising — see point one. But they can’t afford to be this catastrophically bad in any stretches moving forward.

What happened? Well, the Jazz did have two fouls on Magic 3-point shots: those were big plays. But once again, they lost the plot in transition defense. Check out this play that ended the third quarter:

Michael Carter-Williams missed the three, probably not a surprise. Mo Bamba is a lot longer than Royce O’Neale, and O’Neale doesn’t block out.

But how did the Magic get such a good look? The Jazz blew assignments in transition defense. Watch Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neale point in transition. Clearly, both are telling Ed Davis that they have switched onto someone new, and that he needs to pick up the trailing player — D.J. Augustin. He doesn’t, and Augustin gets the ball. So Ingles panics, sees that Jeff Green isn’t that close to Augustin either, and leaves MCW open for the three.

That might be the right decision given how poor of a shooter MCW is, but it’s robbing Peter to pay Paul when the debt was pretty avoidable in the first place.

30 seconds later, this time in the fourth quarter, the Magic run a pretty pedestrian screen play for Augustin. But Green and Davis don’t communicate on it, and Augustin gets a relatively free run to the rim.

These are two veterans. Davis has been in the league for nine years, Green 11. Ideally, your veteran players are savvy, and rarely make mistakes like this. Unfortunately, they’ve been making mistakes like this all of the time this season, and it’s one of the reasons that the Jazz’s bench has been this woeful. Once again, the Jazz’s bench turned good play by the starters into a mess, and this may have been record time.

At some point, the Jazz will have to decide: are Green and Davis likely to continue to play like this, or are they going to improve significantly?

They can believe that this stretch of play by Davis and Green is an anomaly, the result of good players taking time to learn a new and complicated system. If so, then continuing to play them and believe in them is the right move. Or, they can believe that Davis and Green are at the point in their careers where downturns are likely, and to move on and acquire better options.

They don’t have to decide this today: the trade deadline is just a little under two months away. They can get more information if they’d like. But each game in which you wait for more information also is a game in which the delay of a decision could haunt you, if option No. 2 turns out to be true.

3. Different coaches with different philosophies

One of the best parts of this job is regularly getting to interview NBA head coaches, 30 of the best basketball minds in the world, about anything we want.

Sure, sometimes they’re a little bit secretive — for example, when I asked Quin Snyder about Joe Ingles’ impending move to the bench, he didn’t reveal that he planned to start him tonight instead. And that’s fine, it makes sense from a competitive point of view.

But most are pretty forthcoming about their philosophies, about how they see the game. Orlando coach Steve Clifford had an interesting note about the NBA in his pregame press conference tonight.

“The numbers will usually bear this out, I’d rather have a better player take a semi-contested shot than a mediocre player taking an open shot,” Clifford said. “It’s because of the age of the player, their experience level and their exceptionalities. I think the NBA as always been more of a match-up league.”

That’s really not what Quin Snyder believes in. Though he certainly takes advantage of matchups — Carmelo in the OKC series the most notable example — his offense is much more ball-movement oriented, where it will find the most open player, not necessarily the best one. Again, from a pregame press conference tonight:

“We obviously want to get more shots, and when I say more shots I mean more catch-and-shoot threes, because we are good at shooting those," Snyder said. "There have been games, where they haven’t left certain guys, so you are left with different shots. So us being discriminant on different shots that we take and we have to work a little harder and not settle.”

Think, for example, how many 3-point shots Jae Crowder took last year. He wasn’t a great 3-point shooter, but Snyder would rather he take those than not which might leave tougher shots for the Jazz’s stars. The Jazz believe that if Crowder, or Favors, or Green, or Rubio, or whoever takes 3-point shots, the Jazz’s best players will be more open later in the game. They also believe that allowing those poor shooters to take open shots will keep them more involved in the game. Snyder believes an egalitarian system will benefit the whole, by making the team more selfless.

It’s really interesting. One might argue — and I’m not sure I believe this, but it’s a possible hypothesis — that the Jazz’s commitment to collective play hurts them on the offensive end but helps them on the defensive end. Does Gobert really need to touch the ball as much as he does in Snyder’s system? Probably not. But keeping Gobert engaged offensively seems to have a positive impact on how he plays defensively, and given that he’s the best player in the league defensively, and the Jazz have been elite at that, it seems to be a gambit that is paying off.