Fixing the Jazz is a bit like playing Whack-a-Mole.
The mole raises its head, the Jazz whack at it. The mole ducks its head, and raises it somewhere else, the Jazz whack at it. The mole ducks its head again, then raises it again, and the Jazz whack at it again.
In the process, they lose three straight games — to San Antonio, Houston and Phoenix — on their home court, forever whacking at the elusive mole, lacking the commitment somewhere en route to properly time their whacking. They give up 131 points to the Suns, 66 of them in the paint, to a team that came into Monday night’s game with a decidedly losing record.
Phoenix hit better than 56 percent of its shots, 60 percent from 3.
But it’s bigger than just that.
“It’s a collective commitment at the defensive end,” said Quin Snyder, in the debris field of an aftermath. “… It’s just got to become more important.”
You know the story.
Last season, the Jazz had the second-rated defense in the NBA. They threw up the Maginot Line at teams that couldn’t skirt through Belgium to attack them.
Trouble was, they had not enough firepower to go on attack themselves. They had the 14th-rated offense, quality opponents knowing that in time the Jazz would chuck up enough scuds to lose. The Rockets certainly established and re-established that fact in the playoffs.
So the Jazz did the logical thing — they learned from their shortcomings and went out and got more offense. They whacked at the mole. And they thought they whacked it good.
But then this season, that defense, especially lately, went dramatically in arrears. The Jazz could shoot with other teams, most other teams, they could score with them, they could attack and attack. Enough to win more than they lost. That worked, as long as their shots were falling. As long as they could out-point opponents.
Next thing, those opponents started demolishing the Jazz from the perimeter. They let it fly from deep, they utilized screens, they beat Jazz defenders off the dribble, they broke down the resistance and delivered the ball where it needed to go, blowing up the remnants of the defense. Opposing ballhandlers moved wherever they wanted on the floor.
And the mole laughed in the Jazz’s face.
Writing this in the past tense is an error. It should be written in the present. And, even worse, maybe in the future.
Against the Suns, the Jazz could not coordinate enough to slow the flow. They allowed Phoenix to score 62 points in the first half, and 69 in the second. They could not keep defenders between the ball and the basket.
On that larger scale, the Jazz rearranged their difficulties. They switched solid defense for semi-solid offense. And when that offense is spectacular, they give themselves a chance to win. When it is fair-to-middling, they lose.
And that’s against average teams. Against better playoff teams, the Jazz might be in a world of pain. What’s this we saw on Monday night … three straight 3s over the Jazz’s noggin to boost a slight advantage in the third-quarter to 93-83?
That’s the way it happens. A tight game in a few lackadaisical moments suddenly launches into an unwinnable one. Twenty Jazz turnovers helps not one bit.
Word is out around the league — thanks in large part to Houston coach Mike D’Antoni — that the way to punish the Jazz is to put five shooters on the floor and let them work. Why this is so effective now for other teams and not for the Jazz, and why other teams can have shooters on the floor and still build a sturdy enough defense against Jazz shooters to beat them happens because the Jazz aren’t athletic enough to make that work in space in reverse. At least not when their minds wander.
Bojan Bogdanovic and Georges Niang and Mike Conley and Joe Ingles aren’t quick enough to handle the dribbling-and-shooting pressure, not without help. Not even Royce O’Neale, the Jazz’s supposed stopper. The fact that Donovan Mitchell’s name can be added to that list is a bit of a mystery, considering he is athletic, but not a particularly reliable defender.
He admitted as much in Monday’s postgame, saying: “I can give you a whole bunch of things I need to do, we all need to do. It’s all defense.”
What does all of this mean?
The Jazz have to muster a better, smarter, more physical, more cohesive, more determined effort, just like Snyder said. But there is this unhelpful phenomenon — when the Jazz, so dependent on scoring, start missing shots, they’re vexed by the double-barreled harm of losing focus at the other end, too. The offense whiffs and the defense sags even more.
It should be the other way around, the defense coming to the rescue.
Often the ball stops moving and guys start attempting to do too much individually. Ineffective offense erases confidence and causes collapse on defense. Paging Dr. Freud. Calling the guy with the mop to attend to the mess in Aisle 5.
That mess is now in all the aisles.
It’s more than just three straight home losses out of the break. There have been other indications before this juncture. It’s a whole lot more than just the physical. This is equal measure between the ears and in the heart.
“We have to own it,” Snyder said. “We have to internalize it.”
Said Mitchell: “It’s like, ‘What are we doing?’ We got to go out and compete … We have to come together.”
But you have to wonder. Snyder has already communicated all of this to his players, over and over. He did long before the latest loss to the woeful Suns, in words that probably were quite colorful, spoken with great force and volume. But when those players don’t do what they know, don’t have the will to do what they’ve been instructed, that’s a problem.
“At some point, [the coaches] can give us every answer to the exam,” Mitchell said, “but we have to go out there and do our own part.”
That’s the most troubling problem. They are not doing their part. Not enough of the time.
When Rudy Gobert was asked about the Jazz’s defensive identity, about who the Jazz are now, his answer was honest but alarming. He said: “It’s a good question, a very good question.”
But a bad answer.
And Boston arrives on Wednesday.
Maybe some of this can be fixed. Maybe the mole can be whacked.
It’s been whacked before — the Jazz still are 36-21 — but that’s almost a larger indictment on the current slide.
The mallet seems to be getting heavy in the Jazz’s hands.
And in their heads.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.