San Antonio • On Wednesday night at the AT&T Center, the Jazz’s offense was prolific — better than 40% from the 3-point line for most of the night, nearly 50 free throws attempted.
If only they’d put in the same effort on the defensive end for the entire game.
The Spurs’ hyper-efficient shooting night — some of it attributable to making incredibly difficult attempts, and even more thanks to Utah’s lax approach to guarding the midrange — proved more than enough to send the Jazz to a 127-120 defeat.
The second straight loss dropped Utah to 32-15 on the season.
After struggling defensively for much of the Dallas and Houston games before, the Jazz are intent upon getting their issues fixed.
“The biggest thing for us is, ‘Where do we go from here?’ It can go one of two ways — you can let it keep happening or you can do something about it,” said Donovan Mitchell. “At the beginning of the year, we kind of let it drag on, and you guys know how that was. I think we’re way more far ahead [now] as far as that goes, so I think we’ll be in good shape.”
That wasn’t the case on this occasion, however. At least not early.
San Antonio exploited the Jazz’s perimeter defenders with a smallball lineup that deployed Rudy Gay at the five-spot. Their ability get by first contact led to myriad open looks in the midrange — the spot the Spurs are most lethal.
The result? They were shooting 68.2% at the end of the first quarter, 64.3% at halftime … even a 9-for-21 effort in the third could only drop them to 57.1% overall.
The Spurs would finish at 56.1% for the game.
“We weren’t as aggressive contesting. I think we got better as the game [went on]. … Whether it’s isolation or pick-and-roll, you’re gonna give some things up — but you can’t give up everything,” said coach Quin Snyder. “… I thought we were ready to play, [but] there was a level we didn’t have in the first quarter. … We gave up a lot of points early and we’re playing from behind the whole game.”
Utah was further hurt by Rudy Gobert being whistled for his fourth foul just 53 seconds into the third quarter and heading to the bench. He would not return until there was 2:44 to play in the period.
Not coincidentally, that’s when the Jazz’s defense really began to engage. While Ed Davis did a serviceable job holding down the fort in place of seemingly flummoxed backup Tony Bradley, it was Gobert’s presence that sent Utah on a run.
Still, he would note later, they are hurting themselves by falling into holes from the outset.
“I haven’t seen the good defensive team that we can be. We can turn it around just with our urgency early in the game,” Gobert said. “The rest of the game I feel like we we were there — that’s when they hit all those tough shots. And it was demoralizing at times, but if we don’t give them that confidence early, it would have been a different game.”
As the game progressed, the Jazz were helped by Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson attacking the rim with ferocity, especially in the second half. Mitchell would finish with a team-high 31 points, while Clarkson added 20 off the bench.
Still, they never could fully make up the gap. It certainly didn’t help that of the 46 free throws they attempted, they missed 14. (San Antonio, on the other hand, went 27 of 30, prompting Snyder to lament that his team fouled too much once again.)
On myriad occasions late in the second half, Utah rallied within five points, but was unable to get any closer.
The game was essentially decided for good when, trailing 121-116, Bojan Bogdanovic got the ball at the 3-point line, did his patented pump-fake and sidestep — and was whistled for a travel. On the other end, an offensive rebound enabled the Spurs run down the clock to 21.8 seconds, and DeMar DeRozan put the game away with a couple free free throws.
Thanks partly to that 16-for-19 effort at the stripe, to say nothing of going 11 for 19 from the field, DeRozan finished with a game-high 38 points.
Still, in spite of the recent struggles, Mitchell doesn’t believe the Jazz are that far off from where they need to be.
“We missed things like blockouts, stuff like that — things we can control. We’ve got to get back to the way we were playing the last month, where we’re aggressive on both ends of the floor,” he said. “… Sometimes it’s between the ears — we communicated, we did the little things — we’ve just got to do everything with a little more force.”