The Triple Team: Utah Jazz pull off ugly but necessary tank to try to avoid Rockets in playoffs

Dallas Mavericks Trey Burke (32) shoots under Utah Jazz's Rayjon Tucker (6) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 122-114 loss to the Dallas Mavericks from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. The most remarkable tank I’ve ever seen

I was concerned when the Jazz had a 22-point lead in the third quarter.

After all, the Suns had a 20-point lead on the Thunder, who were resting most of their starters. And if the Jazz won and the Thunder lost, that would move the Jazz into the 5th seed, in line to play the Houston Rockets. We know how the Jazz against the Rockets as the five seed goes: the Jazz would likely lose, and quickly.

Never fear, though: the Jazz tanked, and quickly. From that point on, the Jazz played terrible defense, nearly never passed on offense, and lost the fourth quarter 34-14. That was enough to get an eight-point loss, keeping that six seed for now.

Jazz vs. Mavs win probability chart, from Inpredictable. (http://stats.inpredictable.com/nba/wpBox_live.php?gid=0021901293&odds=pregm&both=N)

Emmanuel Mudiay was the tank commander. It’s a role he’s familiar with, having taken on those duties for the New York Knicks last year. And in the fourth quarter, he was brilliant, going 0-4 from the field with three turnovers.

The brilliance of Mudiay is that I do not know if it was his intention to tank here by dribbling to the corner, to not use Ed Davis’ screen, to push off Delon Wright ineffectually, and to then take the contested midrange fadeaway jumper with plenty of time left on the shot clock. It is certainly a move I have seen Mudiay do before. He missed the shot, which is to say, he succeeded.

Nor do I know if tanking was on his mind when he simply drove against Trey Burke so slowly and without any misdirection that even Burke, a notoriously poor defender, easily ripped the ball away for the steal. Mudiay fouled Burke afterward in “frustration.” Likewise, I do not know if it was Mudiay’s intention to carry the ball so obviously that it was even whistled in the NBA. But he did those things, and Jazz fans should be grateful. We should also note that Mudiay was actually quite good in the early part of the game.

Mudiay was not alone here, I should note: Jarrell Brantley was also 0-4, missing all of his threes. Justin Wright-Foreman played some terrible defense, and Miye Oni didn’t hustle to loose balls. It was a team effort, to be sure. A successful and necessary one.

2. What’s the situation look like now?

I understand why people would be disgusted by the Jazz tanking the fourth quarter, and it was a bit icky. But it was pretty necessary if you believe the Rockets are the worst possible matchup for the Jazz — as I do and Quin Snyder apparently does.

Here are the standings and the relevant games:

Current NBA standings, from NBA.com. (https://stats.nba.com/team/1610612762/traditional/?Season=2019-20&SeasonType=Regular%20Season&DateFrom=08%2F01%2F2020)

• To get the 5th seed, the Jazz would have to beat the Spurs and the Thunder would have to lose both games.

• To get the 7th seed, the Jazz would have to lose to the Spurs and the Mavericks would have to win both of their games.

• In every other scenario, the Jazz would be the 6th seed.

But of course, it’s not necessarily what seed you are, but who you play. Here’s what’s to watch at the top half of the conference, with a hat tip to Dan Clayton’s graphic:

• If the Nuggets win out, they’re in the two seed.

• Clippers beating the Nuggets would guarantee their two seed.

• The Rockets moving to the 2nd or 3rd seed is only possible if the Clippers lose out or Denver goes 1-2 or 0-3.

In short, I think it’s most likely that Houston will stay as the 4th seed, and one of the Nuggets or Clippers will be the second and third seeds.

Now, fans might logically ask why the Jazz would consider tanking if they have the possibility of playing the Clippers, who were a really good team all season long, better than the Rockets. Well, the truth is that the Jazz match up much better against the Clippers: Rudy Gobert has a traditional big man to match up against, they can attack Lou Williams offensively, and Doc Rivers’ defense can be a little exploitable. It would obviously be difficult, but it would at least be different.

3. Live by the three, die by the three

In the bubble, the Jazz have been much more 3-point shot happy than they were during the regular season. Over the course of the seven games so far, they’ve averaged 41.6 attempts per game. In the rest of the regular season, they averaged 34.4 3-point shots per game. And after Monday’s 21-46 performance, they’re now shooting it at about the same accuracy: 38%.

That might be a little bit of a surprise given the absence of Bojan Boganovic, who led the Jazz in 3-point attempts this season, with 7.3 per game. But I think it makes some sense once you take into account how the Jazz were defended: with Bogdanovic, teams were much more concerned about sticking to him beyond the arc. Without him, teams have been much more concerned about the Jazz’s two-man paint game of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert.

They’ve also shown pretty clearly: when those shots are falling, they’re going to be successful. They got the 22-point lead on Monday on the back of shooting 56% from three on a ton of catch-and-shoot looks. They lost the lead once the 3-ball went dry, intentionally or not.

The Jazz, unusually, are going to be a “live by the three, die by the three” type of team in the playoffs. As underpowered underdogs, I think that makes sense strategically as well. They’ll just need to hit them when it matters, when the closeouts are a little bit tougher and the pressure is a lot higher.