Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 117-107 loss to the Denver Nuggets from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. Jazz let a 15-point lead slip away with careless play
Presented with an obvious opportunity to win the series, the Jazz let it slip. A 15-point lead midway through the 3rd quarter should be sufficient, but instead, the Jazz made numerous mistakes on both ends of the floor to lose Game 5.
It felt like a miniature version of the last time the Jazz were in this spot. Two years ago against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Jazz had a 25-point lead in Game 5 before a Russell Westbrook run and some costly mistakes allowed the Thunder to run away with the game and easily force a Game 6. This wasn’t quite that bad, but it was close.
Just like in that series, there was a star performance from an opposing guard. We do have to give credit to Jamal Murray first, because he was sensational. He had 33 points in the second half on just 14-18 shooting. He also had five assists and zero turnovers. He was great.
But the Jazz can defend him better. Here, he gets downhill with Joe Ingles defending in space. But with that much of a cushion, Ingles needs to be able to stay in front of him. Likewise, you’d like to see Gobert come over and help. Instead, nobody does anything.
This was also a bad turnover at a crucial time. Donovan Mitchell gets defensive pressure coming up the floor, but he throws it at Joe Ingles, who isn’t looking. By the time he turns around, it’s like Ingles has never seen a basketball before.
Again, it’s just a lack of focus, but that’s incredibly costly.
You can do this for a ton of plays. Here, Georges Niang has to know that Jerami Grant is a shooting threat, but instead, the closeout is pretty lackadaisical.
Quin Snyder was clearly disappointed in his team after the game. Quotes like these tell the story:
“I thought on some level we just lost our composure when we were ahead,” Snyder said. “I thought as much as anything we got a little distracted during the game and weren’t as focused defensively, collectively.”
He’s right: the Jazz thought they had already won the series, and acted like it. Now they’ll need to win it for real in either Game 6 or Game 7.
2. Inconsistency from Royce O’Neale
The worst mistakes of the game, though, came from Royce O’Neale. I thought the Jazz could have survived the game except for O’Neale’s poor second half, when he had 2 points, 3 rebounds, 5 fouls, and 4 turnovers. The Jazz were outscored by 23 in the minutes he was on the floor.
It is a pretty basic tenet of basketball to guard the player you are assigned to, but here, it’s like O’Neale just forgot to move.
O’Neale, this is a very important play! You are up by one point in the fourth quarter of a playoff series! You can’t leave Murray now! Doing so is like leaving your stove on then leaving for a 2-week vacation: you’re just asking for flames.
As you know, Murray cooked him in the fourth, though no Jazzman was better defensively. Still, why allow him to get such easy looks?
O’Neale picked up his fifth foul on an obvious illegal screen on the next play after the three above, by the way. Then in the fourth quarter, there was this just skull-numbing mistake from him:
O’Neale, you’re good at shooting threes! You’re hitting over 40% in the series! Shoot the ball! It was so awkward that Scott Foster called him for a travel — I’m not sure he actually moved his pivot foot, but hey, it’s Scott Foster.
I’ve overused the exclamation point above, but this is a frankly shocking level of play from a basketball player playing starting minutes in a playoff series.
Look, when O’Neale is good, he’s an incredibly valuable role player. We’ve seen that in this series, to be sure: his rebounding has allowed the Jazz to largely stay connected at that aspect of the game. His defense can be elite. But tonight, his mental mistakes were gifts to the Nuggets over and over again.
We don’t think of rebounders, defenders, and passers as running hot and cold. But if they do, O’Neale ran cold at the worst time.
3. Less Niang and Bradley, more Morgan
Broadcasters are prohibited from showing the interesting tactical bits of coaching huddles during timeouts. That’s why usually, you see only 5-10 second bursts of each — the rah, rah stuff. “We have to work harder! Make sure to rebound! Now is the time to score more points than the other team!” You’d be forgiven for thinking that coaches were just cheerleaders.
I’ve been close enough to enough NBA timeouts to know that this is not what they’re actually like. 90% of the time, they’re dissecting particular Xs and Os situations. They’re drawing up plays. They’re discussing matchups, and how best to take advantage of them.
TNT accidentally showed one such moment in a timeout as the Nuggets made their comeback. It was mostly rah-rah stuff, but Malone got in one more sentence: “Keep putting Niang in the action!”
As easily as the Jazz have attacked Michael Porter Jr. in this series, the Nuggets want to do the same to Niang. He’s just not fleet of foot enough, not shifty enough to defend in any situation involving a guard, and so it’s easy to attack.
This wasn’t shown on the broadcast, but Tony Bradley had a really rough game too. Two times, he passed up wide-open dunks: once to kick the ball out, once to bring the ball down low. This is a brilliant play from Mitchell that just deserved better.
Here’s the thing: the Jazz have another option. They’ve discovered Juwan Morgan and his defensive usefulness. Like Niang, he can play the four. Like Bradley, he can play the five.
I understand Snyder is concerned about scoring, but if he gets more minutes from Morgan, I believe he’ll make up the difference through his defensive impact alone.