Weekly Run newsletter: The Utah Jazz all agree their defense was better but they’re pretty vague on why

Denver Nuggets' Jamal Murray, right, shoots against Utah Jazz's Joe Ingles, left, and Jordan Clarkson during overtime in an NBA basketball first round playoff game, Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The Nuggets won 135-125 in overtime. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool)

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Should you ever want to experience the reality of the idiom “beating your head against a wall” without, you know, suffering any legitimate cranial trauma, might I suggest instead simply asking members of a sports-ball team to discuss specific details of strategy and schemes.

In the aftermath of the Jazz’s Game 2 win over the Nuggets on Wednesday, it was universally agreed that Utah’s defense had been far superior to what it was in Monday’s Game 1. As for why … well, have you ever hear the expression, “You can talk but still say nothing?”

To be fair, this is not so much a criticism as a wry observation. In reviewing the postgame audio and video and quote sheets, it simply jumped out to me how often Quin Snyder, Donovan Mitchell, and Rudy Gobert were all asked some variation on the theme of “What specifically did you do differently on defense this time around?” and that, among all the words that were uttered in response, actual legitimate details were thrown around like manhole covers.

Honestly, it was pretty funny the degree to which they offered up vague platitudes.

Like this, from Quin: “Our guys competed. To whatever extent, there’s the plan, but the players made plays. Big picture, [the Nuggets] are a heck of a team and they’re really hard to guard and I just thought our guys dug in collectively and really defended. … It takes a team to defend them because they move the ball so well and they’re so unselfish, so it puts a lot of pressure on you all the time. Everyone has to do their part in every possession. For the most part, that’s what happened tonight.”

And from Donovan: “Be tough. Just make it tough on them. Like I said, [Jamal Murray] and [Nikola] Jokic, you know, they’re tough; Michael Porter got going as well. But at the end of the day, you just trust in Royce and Joe — they’re our top [perimeter] defenders — and you got Rudy back there as well. But I think that the biggest thing is just making it tough.”

Rudy, meanwhile, was actually asked basically the same thing in three different ways by three different reporters, who were not as collectively clever as we apparently believed, considering his responses touched on physicality, intensity, being disruptive, more physicality, even more physicality, communication, and … oh yeah, physicality.

Maddening in the moment, hilarious in retrospect.

On the other hand, Nuggets coach Michael Malone was happy to spill the beans following his team’s Thursday practice on exactly what Utah did differently: “Their three adjustments were simple: They put Royce O’Neale on Jamal — he did a hell of a job, give Royce O’Neale credit; they put [Juwan] Morgan on Nikola to start the game and the second half, and let Rudy Gobert roam and be a freelance free safety; and with their second unit, they just blanket-switched, 1 through 5. And we didn’t handle [any] of those three adjustments very well.”

You see, Jazz guys? We’re not dealing in state secrets here. Would it kill you to go all Deshaun Watson breaking down the Panthers’ cover-4 scheme every once in awhile?

He said, He said

Part of the normal routine of covering NBA games entails wandering from locker room to locker room pregame to ask questions of both teams’ coaches and, if they’re amenable, both teams’ players. Sometimes you’ll attend the opposing team’s shootaround to do the same. Many times you don’t get much useful. Sometimes you do, though. The equivalent these days is contacting another team’s PR rep and asking for the link to their daily Zoom session.

It’s always interesting seeing how different teams treat similar situations — who’s laid-back vs. who’s serious, who’s a font of information and who’s tight-lipped, who will announce a change to the starting lineup and who absolutely will not. Catching the occasional Zoom interview with Malone lately, for instance, you notice that he’s far more inclined to deliver one-liners than is Snyder.

He was discussing the intricacies of Michael Porter Jr.‘s learning curve on the defensive end and concluded there were far too many “communication breakdowns.” He paused for a beat, then added, “Which is a great Led Zeppelin song, by the way.”

Later, when asked about his team’s Game 2 strategy of sending two defenders at Donovan Mitchell when he had the ball, and how Mitchell basically broke it, first with his passing and then with his 21-point third quarter, Malone quipped, “I think we’re gonna go back to our Game 1 game plan and let him score 57 and see if we can get the win. ‘Cause that worked well.”

In his more serious moments, he provided an interesting look into why he’s concerned about the series.

“The issue with our defense is we’re giving up everything right now. … We’re giving up 3s, we’re giving up the paint, and we’re giving up offensive rebounds,” he said. “At some point we have to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘You know what? We’re no longer giving up the paint, the 3s, and the glass — we have to take two of those three away.’ We can’t give the Utah Jazz everything, and that’s what they’re getting right now. That’s why we got our ass kicked in Game 2.”

Malone wasn’t the only one with jokes on Thursday, though. Rudy, when asked by a reporter from Brazil if the Jazz’s Game 2 win was an indication that Utah is the better team now, Gobert replied with no small amount of sarcasm, “Obviously, when you look at the predictions from the experts, no one has the Jazz winning, so Denver must be the better team.”

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During Wednesday’s game, I noted on Twitter that Rudy lagging behind a play to argue a non-foul call directly contributed to Denver scoring some points. I also pointed out that this has happened with some regularity of late. Some guy replied, first arguing that I shouldn’t criticize Rudy because he was playing really well. A bit later, he circled back to allege that one look at my timeline made him realize that I am a “glass-half-empty kind of guy,” and far more negative than other beat writers covering the team.

As The Dude once said, “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, uh, your opinion, man.”

It’s true that I’m not a rainbows and unicorns-type personality, but I also think I’m pretty fair in my coverage. I also think that’s what the majority of readers want, right? If the Jazz are playing well, explain why. If there’s room for improvement, say where. And if they give a god-awful performance, don’t let it slide. Agreed? Sweet. On that note, here’s some recent super-duper-fair Tribune coverage of the Jazz’s first two playoff games:

• Columnist Gordon Monson takes a look back at three goals that Donovan set before the season, and he’s now realizing the.

• Andy B. Larsen provides some yang to my yin by pointing out that the Jazz set a franchise record for 3-pointers in a game, and that they did it before the third quarter was even over.

• Andy’s Triple Teams are always fascinating reads, and Wednesday’s broke down Donovan’s playmaking, the Jazz’s defensive strategy, and Royce’s passing.

• The dichotomy of Donovan scoring the third-most points ever in a playoff game, and then taking the blame for the loss because of a crucial, late 8-second violation is a big part of why I love sports.