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The Triple Team: Utah Jazz get terrific performance from Mike Conley, rediscover defensive ability in important win vs. Boston

Utah Jazz's Donovan Mitchel, center left, shoots over Boston Celtics' Kemba Walker (8) during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game Friday, March 6, 2020, in Boston. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 99-94 win over the Boston Celtics from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Mike Conley saves the Jazz offense nearly singlehandedly

This was Memphis Mike Conley.

Maybe it was because old Memphis assistant GM John Hollinger was in attendance, or maybe this was the culmination of Conley’s recovery process from his hamstring injury. Whatever the reason, Conley was utterly terrific in the Jazz’s win against the Celtics.

It came in every facet of the game, too. He scored well, scoring 25 points. The 3-ball was falling, and of course, that will come and go. Still, 6-10 isn’t too shabby. But I also liked his aggression in breaking the paint, like on this scoring play. The shot clock was running down, so rather than waiting for a screen, he just went. His sudden action seemed to surprise Brad Wanamaker, so he put his arm on him, and Conley was wise enough to draw the foul.

His ability to break the paint, especially against the various Celtics zones, also set up his terrific passes to 3-point shooters. The Jazz have struggled against zones at times this season, but Conley seemed to have an ability to know how that penetration would draw defenders, and then kicked out to where the space was.

I thought his defense was excellent too. As the Jazz’s defense has struggled, I think too often, Conley’s been a little bit soft, a little bit too focused on not committing a foul and as a result not providing enough resistance. Tonight was definitely not that. Look at this play: Conley begins by defending Tatum in the post from behind, thinks better of it, quickly spins in front of him, then gets the ball with one hand and tips it to Jordan Clarkson before he falls out of bounds. Holy cow.

It was absolutely sensational and, given the sheer lack of production from Mitchell (3-15 FG, 3 TO) and Bogdanovic (2-9 FG, 5 TO), critical for the Jazz to get this from Conley in a big game. There’s real reason to be optimistic about Conley’s contributions from here on out, and as we’ve consistently noted, if Conley’s great, it really raises the Jazz’s ceiling.

2. Did the Jazz rediscover good defense?

The Celtics only had a 97 offensive rating tonight. We should include an obvious caveat to this section: the Celtics were missing Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown, and so had significantly less offensive firepower than they usually do.

But they still have Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker and so still presented a real offensive threat to worry about. But the Jazz did a terrific job of staying up high and preventing those two from getting the shots they wanted, coming off of pick and rolls.

Look how Tony Bradley guards this double screen at the top of the key: he’s standing nearly at the 3-point arc, trying to take away the Walker pull-up three. He does, but Walker figures he can get past Bradley to the rim. He can’t.

Honestly, in the first half, Gobert struggled with this, not getting high and instead getting screened by Daniel Theis at the rim. But by the second half, Gobert was back to being a weapon. Here, he’s up on Tatum on the screen, then is able to beat him to the rim, despite the attempted screen by Theis.

I wonder if playing this style of high defense helps keeps the bigs more engaged than otherwise. By forcing Gobert and Bradley to come out high, they have to be making plays, putting their stamp on proceedings. Drop big defense has worked wonderfully for the Jazz for nearly all of Gobert’s career, but there are real strengths of having the big high, too, especially against huge perimeter threats.

Salt City Hoops’ Dan Clayton looked up this stat:

I suppose this is promising, right? If they can figure out a way to play well on both ends at once, the Jazz will be great. That’s a huge if, though.

3. Playing the clock right

The Jazz had a 10-point lead and the ball with two minutes to go.

If you play offense right, that should pretty much be ballgame. The math isn’t that hard... a 10-point lead is at least four possessions, so you can use up to 96 seconds on offense, even if you miss every shot. You’ll win unless they score every possession in six seconds or less, which is nearly impossible to do.

So Mitchell shouldn’t be taking walk-up threes with 12 seconds left on the shot clock. Nor should Conley be committing Eurofouls to stop transition plays with the Jazz in the bonus. Nor should Gobert be committing loose-ball fouls while going for rebounds. This time it worked out, because the Celtics missed open threes on consecutive last-minute possessions. But it won’t always. Play smart, y’all!

While I’m on the topic, I’d also like the Jazz to consider the opposite problem: playing too slow when they’re losing. When the Jazz are down by a few possessions in the middle or late fourth quarter, that’s the time to put the pedal to the metal and run: you want as many chances as possible to get the lead back. But too often, Mitchell will just walk the ball up the court in those situations. In those cases, they should be getting into their offense with 20 seconds on the shot clock, not 16 or even 14.

Look, this isn’t a huge deal. I’d bet less than one game per season is decided by end-of-game pacing. But at some point, if the problem isn’t fixed, the Jazz will be burnt by urgency not matching the clock.