The Triple Team: How the Utah Jazz failed vs. Phoenix Suns, what they said about it, and who’s to blame

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) walks up court in the second half during an NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 131-111 loss to the Phoenix Suns from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Here’s what they did

They allowed the 23-34 Phoenix Suns to score 131 points on them in 99 possessions, so that’s not great. They allowed them to score 66 points in the paint, shoot 60% from three, get 11 offensive rebounds. They let famously-somewhat-limited former Jazz point guard Ricky Rubio score 22 points on 13 shots, and add 11 assists and six rebounds and steal the ball seven times.

I really wish there was one person to blame. There is not. Every single player on the Jazz was some terrible combination of dreadful and dumb on the defensive end tonight. To prove it, I’ll show you a play from each, alphabetically:

Bojan Bogdanovic is first alphabetically, so fittingly, his first mistake came on the first defensive play of the game. He slides in to help too much, then when Kelly Oubre moves about five feet, he’s baffled. This was not the last time this would happen in the game.

Tony Bradley was benched after this play, in which he worried too much about the possibility of Jevon Carter driving without a screen and not enough about Dario Saric popping out. So then he sends all of his momentum to close out, and can’t get back in time to defend the layup well.

Jordan Clarkson is guarding Rubio here, so naturally, he handchecks with his arm the whole time. Technically, that’s probably a foul on its own, but honestly, Rubio is going to accentuate the contact every time to draw the whistle. Don’t make it so easy!

Mike Conley — Who does Conley think he’s guarding here? I mean, the most charitable answer is actually Rubio, and yet... he’s 30 feet away from him and leaving him wide open, while not really helping on whatever drive happens. There are two wide-open dudes throughout this play.

Rudy Gobert missed assignments in transition at least a couple of times, but I’m going to show you this one anyway, where he just gets bullied by DeAndre Ayton, who decides to post up from the 3-point line. When players decide to do things like “I’m going to post up the DPOY from the 3-point line,” they should not succeed. They should definitely earn at least an outstretched hand of contest.

Joe Ingles was the primary defender on Devin Booker, and he just wasn’t up to the task tonight. But on this play, I’m going to show you where he just stops guarding Rubio, and while that wasn’t a bucket on it’s own, it led to one:

Donovan Mitchell goes heroball on offense, I think we know that tendency of his. But he also has a tendency to try it defensively, too. This play is aggressively fine: Dario Saric being guarded by Juwan Morgan is not a mismatch. But Mitchell double teams anyway. Why? This cannot possibly be the game plan.

Juwan Morgan was the hardest one to find a mistake for, because he played five minutes and the Suns baskets during that stretch weren’t really his fault. On this one, you can argue that he should have stopped the cutter after Royce O’Neale closed out recklessly, I suppose.

Emmanuel Mudiay had more mistakes than this, but the last basket of the game was certainly not a bright spot... didn’t figure out who to switch on in time, then lazily let Cheick Diallo drive by him for the dunk.

Royce O’Neale made the same mistake Jordan Clarkson made above: using his arm bar to defend Devin Booker on the drive. But if Booker feels that, he’s going to get his arm under the contact and go up for two easy free throws every time. Quin Snyder constantly preaches for Jazz defenders to show their hands to the officials... this isn’t that.

Georges Niang gambles for this inbounds steal. It does not pay off. Then he fouls Aron Baynes, though no whistle.

Rayjon Tucker. Yes, Rayjon Tucker played for only 2:24 and yet even he gets an entry in this series. We are mining the depths of Jazz despair. Rayjon, what are you watching here?

If someone on your team makes a massive defensive mistake on nearly every possession, you’re just going to lose. That’s how that goes.

2. Here’s what they said

I’m always interested to hear how the players and coaches react after games like this. Are they a living embodiment of the “This Is Fine” dog? Or do they react in the way that you’d want them to? I’ll let you decide. Here’s the full transcript of the interviews with every player tonight.

Quin Snyder

On the Jazz’ overall effort tonight

There are certain games in the course of a season where you don’t play well. You lose. Things happen. There’s other games that, when you look at, are low-point type games. Those usually involve more than a lack of execution, but a lack of commitment to the things you need to do to win. We’re gonna keep getting the same result if we don’t focus and execute on the defensive end. This is a group that’s done that. But that doesn’t matter right now. What that should tell us is that we’re capable, at least on some level. But right now that’s not who we are. Who you are is who you are now, not who you’ve been or what you’re gonna do or what you can do. It’s what you do. What we did tonight wasn’t good, obviously. That’s an understatement on a lot of levels.

On what can be done to fix the recent defensive struggles for the team

I don’t think there’s a sweeping answer that you say, ‘Do this.’ I think it starts with just the commitment to run back. Simple as that — transition. You could say protect the paint. I think they had 66 points in the paint. But that involves a lot of things. It involves getting back. It involves pressure on the ball. It involves defending off the ball. It involves communicating. It involves rebounding. It’s not a singular thing. It’s a collective commitment to the defensive end. We weren’t great in the first quarter but we had activity, we turned them over because we had some activity that got us some points. We still gave up 27, but we didn’t give up 30+.

We’ve been that team. It seems like a long long time ago that we won a game in Phoenix because we defended. We’re a long way from that right now. The season’s not over, it’s not going to end anytime soon. We need to commit and correct it.

On how to turn the team around after a tough stretch

These teams go through tough stretches. You say that, and you don’t accept that in any way, but when things do happen and you have games like this, it’s more about what you do with it. Because what’s happened from a results standpoint, we have to own. We have to internalize it more than anything. There has to be a different level of commitment to the defensive end. It’s just got to become more important. We’re not going to be perfect. You can try to control the things that you’re actually capable of controlling and that’s a collective effort.

Donovan Mitchell

On his thoughts on the last few games

Teams just come in here ready to play. We match their intensity for maybe a quarter or a half and then, it’s like the pipes burst. They just get whatever they want. As a collective unit, we gotta come together.

Have all the conversations been had that need to have been had?

There’s nothing else to say, now it’s just about going out there and doing it. Otherwise we’ll be home in May.

You guys know what you’re capable of, is that the most frustrating thing?

It’s not like we haven’t seen what we could be, we haven’t seen the chemistry and all that. Having losses like the past three especially are just like, ‘What are we doing?’ We gotta go out there and we gotta compete. There’s not one person to blame. It’s all of us. Not even the coaches. We gotta go out there as a unit, collective. I think Joe said it this morning. Coaches can’t do it. We gotta go out there and do it as a unit. It’s not even offense. It’s just defense. It has nothing to do with the offensive end. We gotta figure that out.

On how much the coaching staff impacts the games

I love our coaching staff. They break down every detail. And that’s why this hurts a little bit. They can give us every answer to the exam, but we gotta go out there and do our own part. We’ve had great game plans the past three games. We just haven’t really executed the way we needed to.

Is it at this point as much about the mental attitude as the physical effort?

At this point I think it’s a little bit of both. We can’t get satisfied when it’s 62-62. We can’t get satisfied when it’s 62-66 against the Rockets. We can’t get satisfied when — I don’t know what the score was in the San Antonio game.

It comes to a point in the third quarter, that third quarter used to be lethal for us. It used to be a thing where we’d come out and that’d be where we made our push. Now the roles are reversed. We can sit here and look around and say we’ll figure it out, or we can make it happen. We have guys who can make it happen. This is a tough stretch, a crucial time, but we’ll figure it out.

In your career to this point, your teams have always been committed to the proper defensive habits.

I think the biggest thing for us is the mental. I think we want to do it, I think we have guys that really want to do it. Now we just have to show it. It’s easy for us to talk to you guys after the game and say that we’re all committed, but now we have to go out there and do it. We’ve talked the talk, now can we walk the walk?

We do it in spurts. And that’s what’s frustrating for us right now. We’re there, you know? And then I don’t know what happens. I can’t give you a reason right now, I’ve got to go back and watch the past two games, then we’ve got to figure it out.

Are there things you think you can do better individually?

Yeah. Two backdoors, I should have fouled DeAndre under the hoop even though we were down 19, I shouldn’t have tried to get the offensive rebound on Kelly Oubre’s dunk. Fouled Ricky, let Ricky go by and get Rudy his 3rd foul before the half, I can give you a whole list of things I need to do and I think we all need to do that. I think we all will do that. It’s all defense.

It doesn’t matter how many points you score, we can’t guard anybody. We’ve got to go out there and do it, myself included. No one’s excluded from that. The guys we have in this locker room are going to figure this out.

Rudy Gobert

Where do you think this team is right now?

It’s a good question. It’s a very good question. I think we still can hopefully be the team that we can be. We just have to look in the mirror and see what we can do better.

Why is this happening? You guys can be good defensively.

I think we’ve just got to be who we are again. I think right now it’s not who we are. We say that we are worried about defense, but it’s not who we are. We’ve just gotta... it starts with me, and then all of us have to get on the same page and go out there and play as a team, especially defensively. Defensively, for the most part.

What are the things individually you can do better?

Everything. I’ve got to communicate better, when my teammates get beat, I can’t foul. I’ve got to be better. They rely on me, so I have to be who I am. I think if I fix that, it’s mostly, we’ll be fine.

Is it more nuanced schematic issues or effort?

It’s not just effort. It is being worried about the right stuff. It has to be who we are. It is our identity. It has been our identity since I have been here, since Quin got here and we decided to be good on defense. We just have to stay who we are.

On if he has been through this before and how he can get over it

We won 25 games my first year, so I’ve been through worse than that. Every time you have a rough time, you get together and go past that. We had some rough times earlier this year, too, and I think it brought us closer together as a team. Like I said, we have to take some time to watch film, listen to the coaches, listen to each other and see what we can do better.

Rudy do you think you’re mentally tough enough, collectively?

No. I think we can be a lot better, a lot tougher. If you want to be the 5th or 6th seed forever, we’re tough enough. If you want to be a championship team, we’re definitely not tough enough.

What’s the message to your teammates right now?

It’s not just to my teammates, it’s to myself. Just gotta be better, we’ve got to be tougher. When things don’t go our way, stay together. In the rough moments we have to step up even more than we do when things go well. We’ve got to step it up, and it starts with me.

Joe Ingles

What is happening?

I think if we knew, exactly — I think obviously there’s — I’m not going to say clear stuff, but obviously there’s stuff that we know, breakdowns defensively and stuff like that that we know. Some of it, obviously, if we had known, we would have changed already, right after the first game, first half, first quarter, first possession. I think defensively we obviously had a lot of breakdowns, individually and as a team. Tonight, I think the breakdowns turned into transition, which we’ve been pretty good with a lot of the year. It’ll be good to watch, honestly, watch the film over the last three games and then figure it out, because we need to figure it out sooner rather than later.

Is it just an execution thing or is there an effort component to it as well?

I mean, no one’s out there not trying. No one’s out there not trying to do their job or try to be the best they can do or be or whatever. So I would never say our teams not trying, because we obviously want to win games. We’re competitive, it’s the nature of playing professional sport. You want to win. So I don’t think it’s anything like that. But there’s obviously lapses in that kind of connectivity that I said this morning that has been breaking down.

Defensively, I think we got one hundred and thirty one, which obviously for our team is kind of embarrassing, really, for what we stand for and how we want to play. Offensively I think you can always — I don’t know what we scored, but enough offensively, but probably enough to be around the point of winning a game. But to give up 130 is not us.

We were talking to Quin earlier and he said that ‘we aren’t who we were, we are who we are right now.’ Does it feel like you guys have lost your identity a little bit?

I wouldn’t say lost, because I think we are who we are. Obviously, right now, we’re not the exact team that we’ve been for a lot of this year. But I think everyone individually knows who we should be, and how we can play, and how we are capable of playing. It’s easy to say that when you’re not doing it because, clearly we’re obviously not doing it at the moment. But yeah, I really want to watch the game, to be honest.

It’s one of those ones that I think we played reasonably well in the first half. And they went on that run in the third quarter — I don’t know what it was but it was the same last game, when they scored 38 in the third quarter.

So I thought we started off reasonably well tonight and it kind of slowly trickled down to where we didn’t want to be. I think it’s embarrassing for us, the performance we put out there, and especially being at home in front of the home crowd and fans. And it’s something I’m not going to sit here and be super down, but it’s something that we have to figure out and fix and stay together. We’ve got a long year to go, we’ve got twenty five games or whatever it is to go. So we’ll watch it tomorrow, figure it out, have a good practice and come back on Wednesday for Boston.

What can you do individually better defensively?

Probably a lot. It'd be nice to watch, exactly what happened. And I think as a group, there's obviously a lot of things we can get better at, individually as well.

I think we spoke about it, about the containment one on one with guards and whatever — with the small ball and different lineups out there — and I think everyone in our team, me included, holds ourselves pretty to a high standard defensively.

I like the challenge of guarding the Bookers, or whoever it is each night. And that’s on me first and foremost to take that challenge, and do my best and then as a team as well to have each other’s backs. And if I get backdoored or blown by, for Rudy to come over or for Donovan to fire over or whatever it is. I expect myself to play a lot better than I have recently.

Do those problems, do you feel they’ve kind of snowballed or compounded?

I think they can. I think we’ve done a reasonably good job of not letting it snowball too much. But I mean, when you’re playing the way we’ve been playing, this is a lot more bad than good right now. I think there’s a lot of possessions that are like — it’s draining almost. There was that — I don’t know what part of the game — but it felt like we’re just running back in transition and Oubre was dunking every time and yelling and screaming. And it’s like, this is just, it’s just embarrassing. It’s it’s not who we are. It’s not who we’ve been until this recent little stint. So it’ll be good to get in there tomorrow and watch it and come out with a better effort or whatever the right word is on Wednesday.

3. Here’s what I think

I think this team is too satisfied with too little.

Is it a coincidence that the Jazz have lost eight of 12 since they moved into the second seed on January 25th? I don’t think so. I think they reached their “goal” seeding, and decided that they were playing well, and forgot what got them that position.

Is it a coincidence that struggles really began nearly at the same time that Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert were named All-Stars on TNT? I don’t think so. Gobert achieved a lifelong goal, but he’s looked like he’s played at well short of 100% effort level recently. Remember when Mitchell swore he’d live up to his defensive potential this season? How he worked on it with Gregg Popovich at Team USA camp? If anything, he’s been worse since the recognition.

People are very excited to blame Mike Conley, and I get it — he was toasted by Rubio tonight, which is just about the worst possible look for everyone associated with the Jazz. But the Jazz are 6-6 with Conley on court, 2-2 without him, since he came back. The magical Mitchell/O’Neale/Ingles/Bogdanovic/Gobert lineup that was killing teams when the Jazz were playing well has been a negative in in the last 12 games. That’s definitely not on Conley.

To be clear: he deserves a lot of the blame. But so do Mitchell, Gobert, Ingles, and the other players that Jazz fans have come to adore over the last few seasons. There’s just less of an emotional connection with Conley, so he gets blamed first. I get that.

One of Quin Snyder’s key jobs is to motivate his players, and clearly that hasn’t been effective recently. So I suppose there’s criticism there. Tonight, he looked like a man that had tried everything, and couldn’t believe that nothing had worked. He seems like he’s shocked this is happening — but we are too.

And I think, if this continues, significant blame has to be assigned at the feet of Dennis Lindsey, Justin Zanik, and the front office. They gave up two first round picks, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, and Grayson Allen for a player that hasn’t contributed much and realistically looks to be on the downside of his career. That’s a lot of chips given up for not much return.

Bojan Bogdanovic has worked out well, and Emmanuel Mudiay’s been fine, but Jeff Green and Ed Davis were horror-show fits from day one. Ideally, the front office should have been able to see that coming, that they were square pegs in round holes. In their defense: I didn’t see it coming, and neither did most Jazz fans. But part of that job is avoiding landmines, and they haven’t avoided these ones.

As Joe Ingles said, Monday night’s game was embarrassing. As Donovan Mitchell said, if they don’t fix it, they’ll be at home in May.