The Triple Team: Utah Jazz avoid beating themselves to run away vs. New York Knicks; Emmanuel Mudiay has developed since his NY days

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 128-104 win over the New York Knicks from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Jazz win by not beating themselves

The Knicks are a bad team, with a 10-28 record. Furthermore, they played last night against the Lakers, so they were on the second night of a back to back. And even worse, two of their best players, Julius Ruandle and Marcus Morris were out for tonight’s contest, along with point guard Dennis Smith Jr.

So the Jazz won, and easily. They did this essentially by not beating themselves: they only had seven turnovers for the game, continuing a recent low-turnover trend. They also didn’t foul the Knicks hardly ever, only sending them to the line 11 times. When the opponents don’t have enough quality to really give you problems, the only problems that can arise are the ones you introduce on your own, and the Jazz avoided all of those landmines. That’s good!

Another way you can help your team’s cause: by putting math in your favor. Tonight, the Jazz took only two long mid-range shots. That’s great! They weren’t satisfied with pretty good looks — instead, they moved the ball (safely) to get really good looks. That they only made 16 of their 43 threes (37%), despite how open they were, shows just how much the Jazz could have won by even more tonight. It very easily could have been 140-104.

Still, a 133 offensive rating shows just how on point the Jazz were, even if the task at hand wasn’t very difficult.

2. Emmanuel Mudiay’s development

Emmanuel Mudiay was pretty bad for the Knicks last year. Sure, he started a majority of their games, and scored 14.8 per game, but truthfully, there was a reason Knicks fans called him their “Tank Commander." In that environment, he was a poor player.

Early in the season, he seemed to bring his Knicks energy to the Jazz’s bench. There were some selfish plays, there were defensive mistakes, there were bad decisions, and there were so many turnovers. But he’s developed this year under Quin Snyder. Honestly, the biggest difference is not Mudiay’s skillset: he still loses the ball when he attacks, he still isn’t a tremendous layup finisher or outside shooter.

The way he’s improved is nearly entirely mentally. Instead of seeing himself as the protagonist of every minute of every game he’s in, he’s working as part of a collective: driving to create space for his teammates, helping and picking up as needed in transition, working around screens, all that good basketball stuff.

Mudiay 1.0 absolutely panics in this situation. With five seconds left on the shot clock, coming off a screen? He’s probably going to take a tough shot, or try to force a pass that shouldn’t be made. Mudiay 2.0 quickly search dribbles, and finds an open man. (Now, that man absolutely should not have been open, and it was terrible defense, but again — a lot of basketball is not beating yourself first.)

This is an intelligent cut, too. Mudiay knows how the Knicks defense is going to help, the timing of when Ingles will need someone in the paint, and where the space down low is going to be.

And look, here he slides his feet, keeps his hands out of this play until it’s clear they’re needed to contest a tough shot.

I am reminded of Zach Lowe’s article on Ben McLemore, who is playing relatively well with the Houston Rockets. Both McLemore and Mudiay are past lottery picks who spent much of their first few seasons showing that they weren’t especially adept at dribbling, passing, shooting, or defending, all critical basketball skills. But both have faced the prospect of being out of the league entirely, and both responded to their NBA mortality by changing their mindset and improving their games.

Mudiay’s become a really nice piece for the Jazz. I’m sure his minutes will decline once Mike Conley gets back — yes, Conley is the much better player, though I saw a Jazz fan assert otherwise — but he’s been much more solid than expected, and he deserves a ton of credit for that.

3. Blocks and their correlation to good defense

Here are the NBA’s per minute leaders in blocks right now:

Player Per 36 Minutes Table
Rk Player Pos Age Tm MP BLK
1Daniel GaffordC21CHI3234.0
2JaVale McGeeC32LAL6113.7
3Brook LopezC31MIL9503.5
4Hassan WhitesideC30POR10483.5
5Mo BambaC21ORL5113.1
6Goga BitadzeC20IND2753.1
7Jonathan IsaacSF22ORL9493.0
8Nerlens NoelC25OKC6253.0
9Mitchell RobinsonC21NYK7502.9
10Dwight HowardC34LAL7262.8
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/8/2020.

Daniel Gafford is fun, but the Bulls have been better when he sits. You guys know about Javale McGee. I’ve written about Hassan Whiteside’s poor defense. Mo Bamba’s a lottery pick, but has been a disappointment in Orlando. Nerlens Noel can block shots, but again, the Thunder are much better when he sits.

There are good defenders on this list. Brook Lopez is once again locking down the paint in Milwaukee — they’ve been tremendous again, and while he gets a lot of help in the paint as part of their scheme, Splash Mountain is a big part of it. Dwight Howard’s been really helpful this year. Jonathan Isaac’s a legitimate defensive terror.

Basically, blocks can be meaningful, or they can be empty calories. The Knicks’ Mitchell Robinson definitely belongs in the empty calorie category, as his indefatigible chase for the block really hurts his team defense. Like, check out this Mudiay play:

Mudiay’s being forced into a tough shot. His teammate is already defending it well. But Robinson smells a block possibility, and so he leaves his man, Tony Bradley. Mudiay just dumps it off for a dunk. Great read, but there was no need for a tough two to turn into an easy two.

Rudy Gobert is now No. 27 — appropriate — on the blocks per minute list. He is obviously better than the 27th best shotblocker in the NBA, but A) teams rarely challenge him now and B) he doesn’t care as much about getting the block. He’s worried about defending the play and getting the rebound, and if he’s at 100% block mode, he’s less likely to get the rebound.

It’s funny that Gobert’s DPOY case, which once featured blocks as its strongest point, now relies on other stats for that case. But especially in today’s NBA, blocks really aren’t everything.