The Triple Team: A 7-game series comes down to one play. After the loss, where do the Jazz go from here?
(Mark J. Terrill | AP) Utah Jazz's Mike Conley, middle center, Royce O'Neale, bottom center, Jazz head coach Quin Snyder, center rear, and Denver Nuggets' Jamal Murray, right, watch as Conley's shot rims out in the closing seconds of their NBA first round playoff basketball game, Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
One inch, maybe two, determines whether that Mike Conley 3-point shot goes down.
If it does fall through the net: it’s ecstasy. After all, this Jazz team has gone through so much. On March 11, they made worldwide headlines for Rudy Gobert’s positive test, an event you very well may read about in history books. Then came Donovan Mitchell’s positive test, and the very public bad feelings between the two. A 20 point-per-game scorer in Bojan Bogdanovic went down for wrist surgery. A G-Leaguer was the seventh-best player on the roster, and yet, one inch would have meant a playoff series win. It’s resilience of the highest order.
Since it didn’t: The Jazz blew a 3-1 series lead. They lost a 15-point lead in Game 5. They didn’t match Denver’s intensity in Game 6. Both Mitchell and Gobert waited until the second half of Game 7 to make an impact — unacceptable in a third closeout game. Conley could have been the hero, instead, he’s the guy who went 2-13 in a Game 7, moving his career record in such games to 0-4. It’s failure.
Of course, it’s not just Conley’s shot. If the Jazz shoot more than 23% from deep in Game 7, after absolutely setting the nets on fire for the rest of the series, they win. If they get one more foul on a Mitchell drive, the game likely goes to overtime. If Juwan Morgan, of all people, makes his free-throws they win. If Jokic misses one more moonbeam of a shot. If a foul is called on the shot pictured above. If the Jazz lose their focus defensively on one fewer possession in the first half. You can do this kind of thing all night. Quin Snyder will.
But we’re all living small margins away from disaster. A few days ago, a tree fell on the house next to mine, wrecking the structure and posing great danger to my neighbors. I have a similar tree behind my house. Why did someone else’s tree fall and not my tree? Some bugs decided to live there instead of next door. A few years ago, a car changed lanes into me. I jerked the steering wheel and, on balding tires, did a full 180 in my little Ford Escort. Oncoming traffic swerved to avoid me. The cars did — one by a matter of inches.
There’s a phrase that I like for this idea in modern philosophy: The Fragility of Goodness. I’ve thought about it a lot over the last six months, as our world has become unfamiliar and difficult due to small things ballooning into big things. What happens if one random bat’s coronavirus doesn’t jump to one human? It wasn’t inevitable. What happens if Derek Chauvin thinks better of keeping his knee on George Floyd’s neck, or one of his fellow officers intervenes? We live in a different world.
And in that world, police brutality probably isn’t at the forefront of the conversation, Jacob Blake’s shooting probably doesn’t get as much attention. George Hill probably doesn’t sit Game 5 against the Magic, then neither do his teammates. The league doesn’t postpone the other games. The Jazz play Game 6 Wednesday, Game 7 Friday. Who knows if Gary Harris is healthy enough to play, and make the final steal?
So yes, it’s a game of inches. Life is a game of inches. If goodness is fragile, then so too is success and failure, in life and in sports.
How do we respond to that? All we can do is pick ourselves up and fight as hard as we can — try to get one inch better, over and over again. One day, fragile goodness might become greatness.
2. Tale of two halves
Now the devil’s advocate response for the philosophy above is that the Jazz had numerous opportunities to close this thing out, and couldn’t. The Jazz’s loss wasn’t about one or two plays going poorly, but the whole effort level of the team for large stretches of the series. The final chance went begging, but the Jazz certainly had their chances.
That was especially true in the first half of this one, where I thought that the difference in the game ended up being the Jazz’s inexplicably poor start, especially from their two star players.
Look at Gobert here, not making much of an effort to do anything about Jamal Murray’s jump shot. Quin Snyder is furious at that one, calling a timeout immediately just to yell at him. Quite frankly, his teammates look just as mad.
Now, here’s how Gobert played in the second half:
He has both feet on the 3-point line, dissuading Murray from the shot. He maintains contact as Murray tries do drive around him, then easily swats the layup. It’s night and day. And it’s not a system change by Snyder, it’s simply about Gobert deciding to make an impact.
But Gobert wasn’t alone in struggling to find himself: Mitchell only had two points in the first quarter, and actually started the game 1-5 from the field with five turnovers. I think for him, it was about nerves rather than effort. This is a nervy miss right here.
And here’s a straight-away three buried with confidence in the third quarter:
It’s not just those two guys. Snyder made better coaching decisions in the second half, putting a greater emphasis on his stars. Ingles played better defense, as did O’Neale. Conley responsibly ran a lot of possessions down the stretch, and despite his shooting percentage, did a decent job at it.
Ultimately, the Jazz were just as good in the second half as they were bad in the first half. Only one play made the difference. But if they want to avoid it coming down to one play in the future, they’ll need to be better for a larger portion of the game.
Can they be? I think so. I think Bogdanovic’s return really would help. Again, the Jazz lost the bench minutes in a major way: the Jazz were -8 and -9 respectively in Georges Niang and Morgan’s six minutes each. Depth was this team’s Achilles heel, except the mythical Achilles’ heel wasn’t brightly flashing “Danger” in yellow lights like the Jazz’s second unit was.
3. Where do Jazz go from here?
There was a point in Game 7 where it was going so poorly that I thought the Jazz might have no choice to blow it up this offseason. With how badly Gobert was playing, and some sniping between him and Mitchell, it seemed like bringing him back might not be feasible.
Then the second half happened, and Gobert was brilliant. The Jazz showed their potential in their performance, if not the final result. And most notably, those on the team seemed like they were indicating that they wanted to give this team another go.
Take Gobert’s quote:
“I’m really proud of the way we’ve been able to handle (the last six months) as a team, as human beings. A few months ago, I probably wasn’t in the right space mentally to go out and play with my team, but we found a way to make it happen. To be able to have my teammates’ support through these last few months, especially since we’re in the bubble and after everything that happened, it was really something that lifted me up and I really tried to give everything I could for this team.
We came up short, but I have no doubt that we’re going to win a championship. Might be painful right now but I guarantee that all of us will come back better, I’m going to come back better and we’re going to do anything we can that’s in our power to be a better team next year.”
Mitchell said similar things:
“I’d go to war with anyone of these guys in the locker room, or any one of these coaches... We’re continuing just to build chemistry. We went from being an “unsalvageable” team three months ago to this, and I don’t think anybody outside of us expected that.
“We just got down here and we worked and everybody just locked in, from the rookies to the coaches, but we just got to do more. With Bojan coming back, not putting everything on Bojan, but with him coming back it’s another weapon. This won’t happen again.”
That sounds like two guys who aren’t expecting major changes to the roster. And given where we were three months ago, that’s significant progress. As Mitchell said, they’re no longer unsalvageable.
Changes around the edges would help a lot, and depth is key. Derrick Favors is a free agent and is said to be extremely interested in returning. The Jazz will have to fight for Jordan Clarkson’s signature. They’ll need to use the Bi-Annual Exception to pick up a back-of-rotation piece, and probably make a trade or two to get someone who can help. They have a draft pick, and moderate salary ballast in Ed Davis’ contract.
That’s all to be discussed, and we’ll interview Dennis Lindsey and company about what’s to come in the coming days. But for now, it’s the end of a season — one that began with such promise and ended with a first-round buzzer-beating miss.
Thanks to all of you for reading yet another season of these. I’ve been doing the Triple Team for every game since the preseason of 2013, and it’s a fun way to get you info and insight on the team you’re so passionate about. They’re some of our most-viewed sports content, and it’s all because of your dedication to the team and willingness to stay up late to read about it. Thank you, so much, for allowing me to do a job that I love.