Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 118-107 win over the Brooklyn Nets from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. 10 in a row
Quin Snyder doesn’t like answering questions about winning streaks. I know this from years of covering him, and have watched as other reporters ask about winning streaks and get the question reframed back in their faces. Snyder likes winning, of course, but what he really cares about is improvement. If the team improves, the wins should come. If they improve forever, they’ll eventually win enough to be the best team in the league. So any question about winning gets an answer about improvement.
I remember in Snyder’s first season, the Jazz went on a nine-game losing streak. One reporter asked him about it, and he responded about how he thought his team — and especially his defense — was improving, despite the nine consecutive Ls. I remember people being a little skeptical of this, blinded by the record. But in fact, Quin was right: after they were 5-16 to start the season, the Jazz finished the year 33-28.
Despite knowing better, today, I asked Quin about the winning streak. But I framed it a little sneakily.
Andy: “I know you’re not one for winning streaks, but what are you most proud of about the play in these last 10 wins?”
Quin: “Thank you. You snuck that ‘last 10 wins’ in there, though.” He laughed.
And then he went to his answer: “Our whole goal has been to try to get better.” Of course.
He continued, though.
“I think we’ve been able to win in different ways. Different guys have stepped up and have had, not even big games, but stretches in the game where the team needs something. I mentioned Jordan and Emmanuel, I think both of those guys have done that during stretches,” Snyder said. “Sometimes one basket is more than two or three points. You know, they’re momentum plays. Our guys are committed to defending together, it’s an unselfish team. That’s probably what I’m most proud of.”
That’s what really stands out about this team to me: there are just so many weapons, too many players to stop. You can’t stop Donovan Mitchell in isolation or Joe Ingles in pick and roll or Bojan Bogdanovic coming off a screen or Rudy Gobert diving to the rim without help, and so the Jazz score time after time after time. There’s nowhere to put a weak defender, no scheme that really works. Everyone’s too talented.
In the November ugly stretch, they had two issues: 1) a lack of cohesion represented by a my-turn, your-turn, turnover prone offense, and 2) a bench that sabotaged any progress that the starters made. Those issues have clearly been fixed, one by time, one by Dennis Lindsey, Justin Zanik and co. acquiring Jordan Clarkson and waiving Jeff Green.
Now, they’re really good. The Nets, in their postgame quotes, seemed almost in awe of the Jazz. Their coach, Kenny Atkinson said “We never could find a way to stop them, just that simple... They are far ahead of us, we have a long way to go to catch a team like that.”
There will be harder stretches. The Jazz play tougher opponents in February. Mike Conley will come back, and it’ll take a couple of games to find his stride with the group. (Still, if the Jazz had acquired Mike Conley at the deadline, can you imagine what the buzz would be? A 28-12 team acquiring Mike Conley?) At some point, someone’s going to get hurt. At another point, another player is going to have a shooting slump. As Ricky Rubio used to say, “Never too high, never too low.”
But the highs being this sky-high is a terrific sign. It means they’ve improved.
2. Donovan’s bounceback
Donovan Mitchell was really struggling tonight through 42 minutes. He had 11 points on 3-13 shooting, adding three turnovers. He seemed to be forcing things to try to get into the paint, and was definitely missing his usual bounce: this is his signature dunk, and he rim-stuffed himself hard.
“I don’t know why I spun three times. I don’t know why I tried to Shammgod in the second half. There are certain things that’s just like ‘why?’, you know?”
And then Mitchell — kindly — got back to the theme of this Triple Team: improvement.
“But progress isn’t linear. You’re not going to figure it all out immediately. In your third year, you’re going to fall back into your old habits at times. And I think the biggest thing for me that stood out was that I was able to keep it simple when it counted,” Mitchell said. “I don’t know if I play the way I played down the stretch last year. I think that’s the part of growing that I think I’m trying to implement in my game.”
Mitchell finished the game by making five of his last six shots. The first was a pull-up three: Kyrie Irving went under in pick and roll, and Mitchell saw it and pulled it. The next, he saw Taurean Prince leaning on the screen, so he rejected it, got the step, and got all the way to the rim.
The Nets started to switch, so Mitchell recognized it, attacked right at the moment of indecision, and got another layup. They switched again, he went right again. For his final basket of the night, he attacked the switch at the moment of indecision, but went left, getting all the way to the rim for two.
In those six minutes, Mitchell kept it simple. He read what the defense was doing, and attacked at their most vulnerable point in a straight line.
“He’s focused on being efficient and being a good decision maker,” Snyder said. “And when he does those things, he is a terrific offensive player.” In the fourth quarter, Mitchell was at his All-NBA caliber best.
3. Joe Ingles can’t score more than 27
One player who hasn’t improved? Joe Ingles. Come on, it’s his sixth time reaching his career-high of 27 points. Can’t he ever get to 28?
Kidding, of course: Joe Ingles’ improvement at the age of 32 is one of the most remarkable things I’ve seen in my time watching the NBA. When he’s at the age most players are turning from star players to role players, Ingles is doing the exact opposite: he’s becoming a bigger and bigger factor in the Jazz’s offense, primarily out of plays he’s starting himself.
Tonight, only three of his baskets were assisted. One of those was dubious: Royce O’Neale passed Ingles the ball from behind the half-court line, and Ingles just walked the ball up the court and took a three.
The other 7 baskets (Ingles was 10-14 for the night) were unassisted stuff that he created himself in pick and roll. And sure, players are going to have good shooting nights and bad shooting nights, but Ingles is making stuff look easy. He used to essentially never take midrange stuff, and now he’s making floaters like this:
And of course, you guys know the story of Ingles going right by now. Houston just exclusively forced him right in last year’s playoffs, it took away everything he was good at. So he said “Well, I gotta practice that” and turned it into one of the Jazz’s most reliable weapons; they average something between 1.1 and 1.3 points per possession on Ingles going right off screens and shooting that 3-ball.
It’s not supposed to be that easy! You’re not supposed to be able to just decide that you need to take your weakness as a player and turn it into a strength, work on it for six months, and have your wishes actually fulfilled. You’re especially not supposed to be able to do that while 32 years old, while caring for twins, while playing for your national team in a World Cup.
Joe’s story breaks every rule in the book. Actually, if you were to write a book about Joe Ingles, no one would believe it, because all of it doesn’t make sense. Ingles, at 26 years old, played in the Euroleague final for only seven minutes, he scored 0 points, for Maccabi Tel Aviv. And now, he’s doing this.