The Triple Team: Jazz can’t stop Damian Lillard or anyone else in loss to Blazers — though a new starting lineup played well enough

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, right, speaks with referee Kevin Cutler, left, during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz in Portland, Ore., Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 124-107 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Have some pride on the defensive end

Look, Damian Lillard is on one of the all-time great runs right now. Last week, he won Western Conference Player of the Week by virtue of averaging 51 points per game. Since then, he has a 36-point triple-double in a win over the Rockets, and 48-point, 10-assist performance to beat the Lakers last night. That he scored 51 and had 12 assists tonight was not especially surprising, believe it or not.

But if coming into the game you knew that he was on this stellar run of form, you would think that you would have more urgency on the defensive end. If you want to trap Lillard and get the ball out of his hands, fine. If you want to “let him get his” and make sure to win the battle inside, preventing C.J. McCollum and Carmelo Anthony and Hassan Whiteside from getting theirs, that’s defensible as well. Just... do something.

What isn’t going to work, at all, is playing a soft hedge defense that doesn’t stop anyone from doing anything. Some of these shots are classic difficult Lillard shots, and if that’s all that happened, that’d be one thing. But Royce O’Neale is blown by on a straight line drive. Mike Conley and Rudy Gobert both have chances to help on the screens, but give Lillard space. And in transition, yeah, Bojan Bogdanovic just isn’t going to be able to defend a famously quick guard who currently is made of lava.

The other thing about the soft defense on Lillard is that if that second guy coming over doesn’t impact Lillard, it’s easy for him to find the open guy. Matt Moore had a good thread on this after the game tonight.

Hear that commentary? Gobert “kind of just got caught in between.” Exactly. Playing in no man’s land just means open threes and layups and dunks over and over again. Both players and coaches have to adapt: players have to come all the way up, and have energy in defending. If a strategy isn’t working, coaches going to a hard trap or double earlier makes sense.

“Our execution defensively has to be better. I think it has been, and I think it will be,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said. “I believe we’re better, and we’ve got to demonstrate it.”

These three days off between games are going to feature some intense defensive film sessions and practices.

2. New starting lineup

The Jazz made a big change coming into tonight’s game, moving Mike Conley to the starting lineup while Royce O’Neale moved to the bench. I thought Tim Bontemps explained the Jazz’s rationale for the move well:

So how did the change go? Well, Mike Conley played well, especially early, scoring 22 points and getting four assists, albeit on 9-20 shooting. Conley was hot in the first half but cold in the second, but it still averaged out to one of his best games, especially given that he turned the ball over just once.

Royce O’Neale looked rough, though. O’Neale was a game-low -27 in the plus-minus column, and I thought that was fair: he missed his open threes, and struggled attacking the rim. And as much as anyone, he really didn’t do much while defending Lillard: getting beat off the drive and dying on screens a little bit. O’Neale hasn’t been at all impactful on Lillard over the course of his career, and tonight was no exception.

The starting lineup was actually pretty good! They were a +8 on the court in the 12.6 minutes they played together. It’s just that everyone else was a -25. (That includes a 10-0 run that the old starting lineup — with O’Neale in and Conley out — gave up at the end of the first half.)

In the end, we’re kind of in the same spot that the Jazz found themselves in early in the year, though it’s a little better since the addition of Jordan Clarkson. The Jazz now have definitely seven good players. But if Georges Niang isn’t hitting threes, he gets really unplayable quickly. And if Ed Davis is this version of Ed Davis, he just doesn’t offer much on either side.

But, hey, the trade deadline is just one game away.

3. Staying tough on the glass

The Jazz have been outrebounded in three of the last four games, the only exception being a really quite good rebounding performance against San Antonio. Tonight, though, the Jazz got beaten on the boards, giving up 14 offensive rebounds to the Blazers.

In particular, I think there just have to be more strength on some of these plays. Like, here, Niang does box out Anthony at first, but then on the second bit of contact, Niang falls to the floor and Melo gets the easy putback.

Or here, Whiteside gives Gobert a little forearm to the back, shoving him out of the way for the rebound.

Are these fouls? Probably. Can you count on referees to call them consistently? You cannot. Just as the Jazz have been lacking in some extra defensive force on the perimeter, I think it’s fair to criticize their big men, including and especially Gobert, for lacking that force down low when shots are missed.

Gobert’s had significant success against Whiteside before, but it kind of feels like Whiteside is a Jekyll and Hyde sort of player. He’s really bad if he’s in chill mode or in a stats accumulation mode, but there are times when he plays up to his ability, and makes terrific decisions and gives full effort. Whiteside won that matchup tonight, and I think it’s fair to say that the Jazz won’t win many matchups when Gobert gets outplayed. They need him to bring more than the opposition center.