A winning streak can mask an issue that needs to be solved.
Perhaps that’s why not many cared much when Rodney Hood and Joe Johnson were dealt at the trade deadline a few weeks ago. The Utah Jazz went on to win four consecutive games without Hood and Johnson, who were dealt to Cleveland and Houston respectively. It was difficult to miss their presence in the midst of 11 consecutive victories.
But here’s the reality: The Jazz do miss Hood and Johnson with a matchup against the Minnesota Timberwolves looming Friday night. The second unit misses the 16 points per game Hood provided. It misses Johnson’s ability to make positive plays against the shot clock. The team misses their ability to improvise off the dribble when coach Quin Snyder’s motion offense needs a bailout option.
Snyder won’t shy away from this. At the same time, the Jazz want to make it clear that Hood’s and Johnson’s absences don’t represent a death knell for Utah’s offense. But the Jazz have struggled to score in large doses since the All-Star break. They’ve yet to break the 100-point ceiling in three games. They’ve failed to score at least 90 in two of those games, and the offense has been plagued by turnovers, slow pace, indecision and missed open shots.
“I think collectively we have to be mentally tougher through adversity,” Snyder said. “We can’t be easily defeated when things don’t go our way. If we miss a shot, are we dwelling on the shot? Or are we moving on to the next play? If we turn the ball over, are we feeling sorry for ourselves? Those are things that we need to grow. I just think it’s another aspect of our team maturing.”
TIMBERWOLVES AT JAZZ
When • Friday, 8:30 p.m.
TV • ESPN
Jae Crowder, whom the Jazz acquired in the deal that sent Hood to the Cavaliers, now is Utah’s top offensive option off the bench. Royce O’Neale, the hard-nosed and athletic rookie forward, has earned a significant spike in minutes. But the second unit has struggled to score, keep leads or create leads. Utah’s bench has been outscored by a total of 17 points in the three games since the break. Crowder is the only reserve who has scored in double figures in the last six games, and he’s doing so while shooting just 37 percent from the field.
Players and coaches say Raul Neto’s absence has been a factor. He’s missed the three games since the break with a sprained ankle. He’s also been a stabilizer for the second unit and someone who has taken pressure off Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell in his ability to play the point and run the offense.
And although Rubio is back from the hip contusion that cost him games before the All-Star break, he’s not yet 100 percent. He still is dealing with a minutes restriction, and that’s robbed the Jazz offense of its primary playmaker during large stretches.
“We’re sort of retooling on the fly,” Utah shooting guard Alec Burks said. “It’s going to take time because there are some new faces. We have to learn each other on the floor. We have to learn where we like the ball, and we have to be connected. That’s going to take time, but I think we’re doing a good job and we’re going to get better.”
There have been some positive moments for the Jazz’s second unit. The bench started the second quarter on an 8-0 run, which helped Utah open a double-digit advantage in Monday’s 96-85 loss to the Houston Rockets. And Crowder and O’Neale have given the Jazz a tough and gritty defensive duo on the wings.
But it’s clear the second unit needs Neto back. He’s able to break down defenses, get into the lane and find open shooters. Plus the Jazz expect Dante Exum back soon, possibly within the next two weeks. His length and athleticism at both guard spots have been missed this season. He’s now practically fully recovered from the separated shoulder that tore ligaments and caused him to have surgery.
The Jazz need 100 percent of their parts to be working correctly to make the playoffs in what has turned into an intensely competitive Western Conference race. Utah is 1-2 since the break, with the two defeats coming to Portland and Houston. But the Jazz know they have to fix an offense that’s sputtered in three games, and fix it quickly.
“The thing is, we’ve turned the ball over a little bit too much, and that’s on all of us,” Utah forward Derrick Favors said. “But we can’t dwell on it. We just have to go and get ready for the next game.”
SECOND UNIT STRUGGLES
• Utah’s bench has a net rating of -17 in the three games since the All-Star break.
• Jae Crowder and Alec Burks have taken the spots vacated by Joe Johnson and Rodney Hood on the second unit after Johnson was traded to the Kings and Hood moved to the Cavaliers.
• The Jazz have lost two of three games since the All-Star break. They’ve failed to score 100 points in all three of those games.