For the final four minutes of Monday night’s game, the Utah Jazz went with this lineup: Ekpe Udoh, Jonas Jerebko, Raul Neto, Royce O’Neale and Donovan Mitchell.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and that was somehow the only Jazz group that seemed to have some fight.
The Jazz finished gamely with 33 points in the fourth quarter, but in reality the contest against the Minnesota Timberwolves was an annihilation. The Jazz (6-8) were so thoroughly dominated from the start that even the late rally made little difference in a 109-98 loss at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
The defeat — coming the day after the team announced star center Rudy Gobert would miss the next four weeks — set an ominous tone for the coming month, which will see many more road games, many more talented big men and better opponents. Finishing up a homestand 1-3, the Jazz could also see many more losses if things don’t change quickly.
“It’s one of those nights that you don’t find the rhythm,” said Ricky Rubio, who was 1 for 7 and didn’t play in the fourth quarter. “You just have to play through it. Couldn’t find it, and they were feeling it.”
Late rally aside, the Timberwolves looked superior in every way. From their length, which kept the Jazz from finding easy shots in the paint. From the ease with which a player like Karl-Anthony Towns (24 points, 13 rebounds) could either hook in the lane or step out for a 3-pointer. From their communication on defense — by comparison, the Jazz couldn’t complete 3-on-1 fast breaks against one of the weakest transition defenses in the league.
A sense of futility kicked in early: Over the course of three minutes in the first quarter, Minnesota took a 15-3 lead that included three Jazz turnovers and four misses. By the end of the first, the Wolves had a 33-14 lead, and the game already felt over.
Through three quarters, the Wolves led by 23, and three players — Towns, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson — already had double-doubles.
Issues sprouted up with Utah’s perimeter players taking too many chances, or players over-helping to leave open shooters. More often than not, the Timberwolves (52-percent shooting, 10 for 20 on 3-pointers) made them pay.
When coach Quin Snyder let the closing lineup play out the final six-and-a-half minutes — closing the deficit from 21 points to 11 — he saw a unity on defense that the starting group lacked.
“Where we’re at right now, it’s going to be difficult for us if we don’t compete together,” he said. That usually means somebody doing something that somebody else doesn’t know that they’re doing. We put ourselves in difficult positions.”
Leading Utah in scoring for the fifth time was rookie Donovan Mitchell, who held his own in another superstar matchup, this time with Butler. While the All-Star had his shakedowns of the first-year Jazz guard, Mitchell finished 10 for 19, including 12 points in the fourth quarter.
But while the closing lineup was able to close the gap in the final minutes of a surefire loss, the answer lies beyond that group.
The Jazz aren’t hitting open shots still, with the starting lineup outside of Mitchell scoring 25 points and shooting 8 for 29. After an upbeat debut at center against the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday, Derrick Favors was limited against the Timberwolves with nine points and 10 rebounds. On the other end, without Gobert keeping the middle manned, perimeter defenders have less room for error on defense.
The defensive issues were the ones the team talked most about in the locker room on Monday night. And they’re the ones the Jazz will have to try to correct while on a four-game trip for the next week.
“Communication — that’s the thing with us,” said Rodney Hood, who finished with 16 points. “Obviously we don’t want it to be a problem right now, but it is. We’ve just got to be better.”