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The Triple Team: Donovan Mitchell’s rough night, Denver’s huge run sinks Utah in another loss

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, left, goes up for a basket as Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020, in Denver. The Nuggets won 106-100. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 106-100 loss to the Denver Nuggets from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. It’s not complicated, you can’t give up a 27-1 run

The Jazz played pretty well tonight!*

*Except for a stretch in which they gave up a 27-1 run.

And if you give up a 27-1 run, you’re almost certainly going to lose.

What happened? In play-by-play, Bojan Bogdanovic cooled down after a hot start, taking a bad three and getting caught for traveling. Donovan Mitchell blew a lob to Rudy Gobert. Emmanuel Mudiay missed a dumb shot. Then Mitchell missed three shots in a row. Georges Niang missed an open 3, then Ingles blew a layup. Clarkson was fouled twice, but the foul was only whistled once. Niang committed a flagrant in transition. Worse, the Jazz couldn’t get a defensive rebound, then fouled Jerami Grant on a four-point play. Bogdanovic missed a layup of his own, then Ingles missed an open three.

Finally, Clarkson missed a hook shot before absolutely catching fire and scoring 24 points in the 4th quarter.

I’m honestly unsure of what lessons to take here. Maybe Bogdanovic shouldn’t have been trying to do too much? But he was legitimately cooking early in the game. Maybe Mitchell shouldn’t have trying to score so much, given his own poor shooting? Maybe having Ed Davis in the game is a bad idea? The Jazz should rebound better? Niang shouldn’t commit flagrant fouls?

This isn’t a Sherlockian-level of analysis here: the Jazz should have made their layups, not committed dumb fouls, taken better shots, and tried harder on the defensive glass.

The shame is that that bench stretch cost the Jazz what would have been a really nice win on the second night of a back-to-back against a good opponent — albeit shorthanded — on the road. They corrected nearly all of their issues from the previous two nights. But you let the rope slip for a second, and the NBA will get you.

2. Donovan Mitchell’s 1-12, 4 point performance

A really good two-and-a-half hours for Donovan Mitchell preceded a really bad two-and-a-half hours for Donovan Mitchell.

Before the game, The Athletic’s Shams Charania tweeted that Mitchell and teammate Rudy Gobert had been named to the All-Star game. When it was officially announced, Mitchell read a letter written by his mother, Nicole, that she made specifically for this situation. It began: “If you’re reading this letter, it’s because you are now an NBA All-Star.”

[Read more: Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell both named Western Conference All-Star reserves]

Mitchell and Gobert watched the TNT All-Star announcement together in Denver, happy that they both had achieved a shared goal.

And then the game started, and Mitchell couldn’t make a shot.

Much of it was Denver’s defensive scheme early. They focused on Mitchell, and he had only one shot through the first 18 minutes of the game. Mitchell, to his credit, passed instead. If the Nuggets were going to send help to temporarily double team him, that meant someone else was open, and Mitchell did a good job of finding that guy.

The shots he took with the bench unit in the third quarter were shots he’s made before, but still tough ones. I think it’s illustrative that those shots mostly finished short: it means Mitchell was tired.

In particular, Mitchell has been going to the locker room a lot more frequently than normal over the past few games. He hasn’t revealed an illness, at least not publicly, but it certainly seems like something is going on. And when he does sit on the bench, he’s staying at the far end, as far away from his teammates as is reasonable.

In other words, I think he’s going to be fine, but given that something isn’t right at the moment, the Jazz are missing a major part of their attack. And it’s hard to beat a good team when your best player shoots 1-12.

3. Jazz vs. above-.500 opponents

The Jazz are 23-4 against opponents who have a sub. 500 record. They’re 9-12 against opponents who have a record above .500.

ESPN’s standings table shows you how that compares to other teams in the Western Conference:

ESPN.com

That’s been something of a trend for the Jazz. As much as everyone locally talks about how they play down to their competition, they really don’t... season after season, they’ve had an excellent record against below .500 teams. Last year, they were the only West top-7 team with a below .500 record against winning teams, going 20-21. The year prior, they were 26-26. And in the final Gordon Hayward year, they were 19-25.

Does that portend woe for the playoffs? It’s hard to know. On the one hand, they lost last year, beaten easily in five by the Rockets. On the other, they upset both the Clippers and the Thunder in the two seasons before that in the first round, so it doesn’t mean they can’t advance in the playoffs.

But thanks to the Jazz’s moves this offseason, expectations have grown: the Jazz should move beyond the second round this year for everyone to be happy. With a losing record against good teams, it’s hard to argue that they should be favored to do that.

Funnily enough, these last three losses have come against iffy competition. All three were missing major players: the Rockets missing James Harden and Russell Westbrook, the Spurs missing LaMarcus Aldridge, and the Nuggets missing Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Paul Millsap, and Mason Plumlee. Losing against bad teams probably doesn’t make you feel any better, does it?

In the end, the Jazz need more answers to the questions top teams are asking. When Houston or San Antonio go 5-out against the bench, do the Jazz have an answer? When the Nuggets are in the midst of a 15-0 run, is there anyone who can stop it? We’ve seen the Jazz play well against top competition, but can they do it consistently?

Right now, the answer to those questions is no. And that should have the front office and Quin Snyder looking for solutions.

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