The Triple Team: Utah Jazz’s perimeter defense woeful in loss to Houston Rockets, allowing Eric Gordon to score 50

Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon (10) drives around Utah Jazz guard Joe Ingles, left, in the first half during an NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 126-117 loss to the Houston Rockets from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Jazz send Rockets to the line 49 times

You can’t give a team 49 free throws and win a game. Admittedly, the Jazz fouled intentionally a few times at the end, and so it was really about 41 free throws... and yet 41 free throws would tie the Rockets’ season high this year, and the Rockets famously draw a lot of fouls.

But tonight, they were without their main foul drawers in James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Clint Capela, so it was Eric Gordon who went to the line 20 times. Danuel House went nine times. Rivers went eight. (A necessary note on the refs: I don’t think they were biased. I do think that they were very quick —probably too quick — to call fouls on drives, which the Rockets did much more frequently than the Jazz did tonight.)

The Jazz’s perimeter defense was horrendous. Joe: I get that you’re trying to draw a foul here, but honestly, it’s not very convincing. Just try to stay in front of your man.

And ditto here. Joe: what is this swipe thing? Your team is in the penalty! This is very unwise.

Bojan: This is Danuel House. He averages 1.8 free throws per 36 minutes. He is not known for his shake. Stay in front.

But it’s not as if Donovan Mitchell or Mike Conley or Jordan Clarkson did any better. Mitchell died on screens. Conley somehow had five fouls, including a take foul when the Jazz already were in the penalty. Clarkson was Clarkson. And Royce O’Neale largely did stay in front, but was whistled for five fouls too.

Without a center on the floor, Rudy Gobert mostly needed to stay out on the perimeter, and I think he did a decent job out there. But if teams are going to spread out the Jazz, they need their guys to stay in front at at least a marginal level. They didn’t show the ability to do that tonight.

“We couldn’t stay in front of our man. It’s something a little different... I’m usually able to be there and help, but everyone has to do a little more individually. We have to get better at it,” Gobert said. “Dallas almost beat us doing that, and Houston got us tonight.”

2. Mind-numbing turnovers

The Jazz had 18 turnovers tonight, which is above average but not a huge number. But what was shocking was how flat out bad the turnovers were — at one point during the game, I thought the Rockets had somehow taken the Jazz’s basketball skills, Monstar style.

These are just weird. Gobert passes directly to the Rockets — in his defense, no one was cutting. Ingles forgets how to pass. Conley forgets how to dribble. Bogey can’t dribble between his legs. Mitchell leaves the ball behind as he goes to the rim. Conley passes it outside of Gobert. Mitchell bobbles the ball in mid-air and gifts it to the Rockets on a 3-on-2.

It’s jarring enough that you have to chalk it up to mental mistakes. And I think it’s easy enough to come up with a lot of reasons that the Jazz would be particularly prone to mental mistakes tonight: Kobe’s death. The Rockets’ playoff domination. Their opponent missing their best players, playing on a back-to-back, and the expectation of a walkover game. Frustrating whistles. Being outplayed by a team that was all 6-foot-6 and below. Etc., Etc., Etc. I’m not declaring the Jazz permanently broken, but clearly they were off their game tonight.

For Conley, especially, it was surprising. He’s a pretty low-turnover player, so getting five in 25 minutes out there was well out of the norm. I asked him what happened.

“I can’t call it, man. I mean they weren’t forced. I was just trying to do… we would see something and go too quickly, or slip, and random things were happening,” Conley said. "That is not like me, that’s not like Don, that’s not like a lot of guys to have so many unforced turnovers. That definitely was a big factor in the game.”

3. Only 2 offensive rebounds

The Rockets, for most of the game, played a lineup in which the tallest player was 6-foot-6. But the Jazz only got two offensive rebounds all night on their missed shots, while the Rockets got 36 defensive rebounds. That’s a terrible rebounding percentage. And in fact, those two offensive rebounds came in the first minute and the final minute of the game, so for 46 minutes, the Jazz weren’t a factor on the offensive glass at all.

There are a few reasons for that. First, a majority of the Jazz’s missed shots were 3-point attempts, and those are less likely to be offensive rebounded. The Jazz missed 45 shots overall, 30 of those were threes. Threes are much less likely to be offensive rebounded in general — this study found that only 18% of threes are offensive rebounded, while shots near the rim have a 35% chance of being grabbed by the offense.

“We need to find a way to get the ball close to the basket when the tallest guy is 6-foot-6,” Gobert said. “We have guys who can finish around the rim. It’s on us to find ways to get the ball to the basket.”

But still, the Jazz didn’t get 18% of their 3-point misses, they got 0%. Those medium-distance rebounds had no chance of being grabbed by anyone: Gobert is fighting inside with two to three guys boxing him out, while the other four guys are sprinting back. That’s what Snyder has chosen, but then you can’t give up 18 fast break points, either.

I also thought Gobert was too passive. Watching the tape, there are many times where he is being boxed out by two guys. Those situations are tough. There were also many situations in which he is being boxed out by only Danuel House Jr. or P.J. Tucker, and I think he can be more aggressive in his original positioning.

In particular, Gobert hangs out in the dunker position, right? That’s on the weak side on the baseline, about 10 feet away from the basket. He’s usually very effective from there. But when the Rockets are switching, and the Jazz aren’t getting penetration, he could stand closer, in better rebounding position. After all, even if the Jazz do get penetration, if House or Tucker come and rotate over, they don’t provide much rim protection against the taller, more athletic Jazz.

Gobert will be less effective defensively when other teams go small. He’s now actually a very good perimeter defensive player, but his literal positioning won’t allow him to defend as many shots. So on the offensive end, he needs to take advantage by owning the glass, and he did none of that tonight.

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