The Triple Team: Jazz seemingly can’t defend Jamal Murray, offense slows to halt in Game 6 loss

Utah Jazz's Donovan Mitchell (45) brings the ball up the court as Denver Nuggets' Jamal Murray defends during the first half of an NBA basketball first round playoff game Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 119-107 loss to the Denver Nuggets from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Defending Jamal Murray

Look, Jamal Murray has been absolutely incredible this series. He’s now shooting 58% from the field, 57% from three, and 92% from the free-throw line, in order to score 35 points per game. He’s also scored fifty points twice.

This is a level that Murray has never played at before. He hasn’t even gotten particularly close. He averaged 18 points per game in the regular season, and never eclipsed 40. No matter how bad the Jazz play defense, it’s still better than what the Wizards or Cavs or Knicks or Warriors throw out there on a nightly basis in the regular season, and he didn’t get 40 on those teams, let alone 50 twice. It’s insane. It defies explanation.

There’s an old quote in economics from John Maynard Keynes, though, that applies to this situation: “The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.” The fact that what Murray is doing in this series is unexpected doesn’t make it any less true that the Nuggets are now just one game away from winning the series. And at some point, the Jazz need to do something about the guy who keeps scoring 50 points on them.

The obvious options have been disastrous. Royce O’Neale was given a 4-year, $36 million contract nearly entirely on the back of his defensive play. And yet, he’s been asleep at the wheel in the Jazz’s losses this series, not getting any sort of effective contest. In the middle of the fourth quarter, at the beginning of the shot clock, O’Neale is somehow a beat late on getting to the point of the handoff. At that point, he’s behind Murray, but still in the play, but makes no swipe for the ball or backside contest of the shot.

O’Neale’s play has been very disappointing.

Joe Ingles turns 33 in a month. He was famously slow, even at his physical peak. It makes sense that he is unable to guard the quick Murray.

Donovan Mitchell just doesn’t have the height to bother him on a contest.

If he was a more physical defender, it might work, but Murray blew by that once in the fourth quarter too.

I mean, at the end of the game, Quin Snyder put Jordan Clarkson on him. Clarkson has one of the worst defensive reputations in the league, and while he’s been somewhat better than that in this series, he’s still a below-average defender. It was pretty clearly desperation by Snyder to even try it.

Go down the roster. Is there anybody else? Mike Conley’s shorter and slower than Mitchell. Miye Oni simply isn’t that good of a one-on-one defender yet. Jarrell Brantley, Juwan Morgan, and Georges Niang are obviously too slow. Emmanuel Mudiay kills you in team defense and on offense, and Nigel Williams-Goss, um, isn’t the answer. Rudy Gobert, maybe? But then Jokic just kills whoever is guarding him.

Maybe putting Clarkson on Murray was a message sent, as much as anything. “O’Neale, Ingles, Mitchell, you’re being outplayed to such an extent that Jordan Clarkson is a better defensive option than you. Get better.” Or maybe the message was to the front office: “Get me a guard defender, Dennis. This roster isn’t good enough.”

That being said, Snyder also needs to give more thought to more creative defensive options. The Jazz’s defense is entirely built around the idea of Gobert defending the rim, but you know what? That’s not what’s killing the Jazz right now. The Nuggets only had 32 points in the paint in Game 6. It’s time for Gobert to come up on those picks.

Heck, it also might be time for the Jazz to just start throwing random double-teams at Murray. He’s a good playmaker but not a terrific one, so maybe stopping him from scoring is enough.

I understand not wanting to overcorrect on a player: that cost the Nuggets Games 2 and 3 when they overcorrected on Mitchell. But if Murray is going off like he’s shown he’s very capable of, something has to be done.

2. Hunting switches effectively

Nearly every offensive play in the second half was the Jazz trying to take advantage of one mismatch or another, to little avail and extreme frustration.

I get the concept: Murray had three fouls, and boy, getting him off the court would have been valuable. He’s an iffy defender, anyway. And Michael Porter Jr. has been roasted alive in this series on the defensive end. Keep going to what works!

But the difference between what the Jazz did in the early games and what the Jazz were doing in Game 6 is a matter of timing and decision making. This play is a great example: Clarkson has the ball, and the Jazz want Porter to be defending him. Great! So they have his man, Georges Niang come up to set the screen.

But when the switch happens, Clarkson is hesitant. He doesn’t pass it to the open Niang, nor does he attack immediately while Porter is still moving. Instead, he pauses, allows the defense to load up against him, and makes his job extremely difficult. The result is a turnover.

Donovan Mitchell certainly did some of this too, but I want to show you this play in which he was successful while attacking immediately. Again, the play is to get Porter on Mitchell, but Mitchell takes advantage of the defense’s confusion at the moment of the switch. That gives him a drive to the rim, and ultimately a trip to the free throw line.

The other thing the Jazz could have done is just involve Gobert in more screening plays, just going at Jokic. The Nuggets are now trapping the Jazz guards when Gobert sets the screen, and they need to do a better job at quickly dribbling out of it and finding the open man. And when that happens, the open man needs to actually take the shot. Looking at you, O’Neale and Ingles.

3. Game 7 minutes

The Jazz have played in one Game 7 in the Snyder era: the win over the L.A. Clippers in Gordon Hayward’s final year. That win also came after a tremendously disappointing Game 6 loss, so there’s some reason for optimism in the history, I suppose.

In particular, I was curious how much Snyder was willing to play his best players in a Game 7 scenario. Hayward played 42:27 in Game 7, as the Jazz walked away with a relatively easy victory. Ingles was the next highest minute-grabber, with 36, but that was when the Jazz actually had a bench — remember, Joe Johnson was killer in a sixth-man role in that series.

Hayward’s 42:27 is a little more than the 41:32 that Gobert played tonight, which is a little more than the 39:59 Mitchell played. Hayward sat just a minute and a half in the second half in that game, whereas Mitchell sat for 2:16 in Game 6.

It’s clearly the bench minutes that kill the Jazz most: they were -14 in the eight minutes Mitchell sat in Game 6. The Jazz’s bench is terrible. In Game 7, Mitchell might need to play 43, 44 minutes, something like that. Given the Jazz’s other poor center options, the same is probably true of Gobert.

And I don’t think it’s a coincidence the Jazz were a -19 in the 20 minutes Niang was on the floor — he can’t be out there for that long again in Game 7.

As a basketball fan, though, I’m excited that this series is going seven games. The individual scoring on display in this series just hasn’t been ever seen before. It’s likely that one of Murray or Mitchell is going to score more points than any player ever has in a series. But which one?

There’s a lot riding on this game. A second-round matchup with the Clippers probably makes this Jazz season a success, given the injuries. A first-round defeat, again? That’s failure. It’s better than losing to the Rockets in five games, but it’s still failure.