Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 111-92 win over the Phoenix Suns from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. Staying close in the first half through guile and defensive focus
Despite the 20-point margin, this preseason game was much more difficult than the first game on Saturday. The Jazz really struggled to score for much of this contest: they went scoreless through the first four minutes, ended up with only 19 points in the first quarter, and struggled in the early parts of the second quarter too. They had 13 turnovers in that first half in all, way too many.
Yet, in the end, they took a halftime lead, 49-48. How? A lot of it was sheer guile, as the Jazz drew 17 free throws in the first half to stay alive offensively. Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, and Bojan Bogdanovic each earned four tries each, so it was a group accomplishment.
They also just defended at a much higher level than they did on Saturday night, against harder competition — Chris Paul was playing this time. In particular, the Jazz showed an ability to get late contests on Paul, making him hesitate on his famous mid-range jumper a couple of times.
I also want to give a shoutout to Georges Niang, who did have some really nice defensive plays despite not being known as a defensive player. That’s the one big knock on Niang, that he can’t keep up defensively, and we’ll see if he can during the regular season. But this is an excellent defensive rotation block on Ayton, and once he even defended an isolation situation against Paul well.
There are minutes to be earned at the backup power forward, between Niang, Juwan Morgan, shoehorning Derrick Favors in there, or just going small with four wings and guards. But if Niang shoots like he did last season and takes a step defensively, he’d be the favorite to win those minutes.
Still, Mitchell was pleased with the team’s defense overall:
“The biggest thing is, we have to make sure that the defense carries us whether we are having a good night or bad,” Mitchell said. “I’m really happy with how the game went. We needed this type of game to see where our defense was at.”
2. A quick burst to start the second half
I remember during the peak of the dominant, pacey Warriors reign, talking to one of their media members as we waited for Steve Kerr to give his pregame press conference. We were talking about their special, era-defining offense, and the writer made a point — it didn’t always feel like they were dominant. They had long stretches where they couldn’t figure out how to beat a team offensively, he said.
And then, nearly every game, they’d go on a dominant scoring burst. 12-0. 15-2. And, more than any team in NBA history, they’d do it fast, scoring those points in just a few possessions, and before you could blink, you’d be down by double digits.
Of course, the Jazz aren’t the Warriors. But there is real value in having these delightful, powerful scoring bursts which turn a game on its head. Tonight, it came right to open the second half: a 13-0 run in the course of exactly 100 seconds. The 49-48 lead expanded to 62-48, and that was that.
It came from a Conley three off a quick off-ball screen, a Bogdanovic transition layup, a Bogdanovic leakout three, two pick and roll free-throws from Rudy Gobert, and a Conley steal rewarded by a kickout from Bogdanovic. To get that kind of burst from your secondary scorers shows some significant depth. This three, from Bogdanovic, is pretty Warriors-esque:
We’ve written about the Jazz’s desire to push the pace this year, and honestly, they say that every preseason. We’ll see if they can actually execute it when the regular season begins and becomes a slog; it’s a compressed 72-game schedule with a relatively shallow roster. But if they can turn talk into action, I’m a believer that a speedy pace can help.
3. Impressions of the other guys
In the last Triple Team, I had a chance to give impressions on Udoka Azubuike, Elijah Hughes, Juwan Morgan, and Nigel Williams-Goss. Let’s look at the other guys that missed the cut Saturday — along with another dose of Hughes, who played the most of the Jazz’s third string players on Monday.
• Hughes scored eight points in 12 minutes tonight, and looked more and more like an NBA player. He’s got an NBA-ready body, and some smooth athleticism to go with it. Like, this is pretty nice on a good defender in Jevon Carter:
For a rookie who has been on the team less than a month, he’s shown an unusually good knowledge of when to attack and when to defer: he just takes advantage of his good opportunities while keeping it moving rather than forcing it. Tonight, he made only one of his five 3-point shots, but he was a 35% shooter in college, and I loved his willingness to take the three.
I think there’s something there. You know, one thing I heard to defend the Jazz’s questionable draft is that they would have gotten less criticism had they drafted Hughes at #27 and Azubuike at #39. I disagree with that a little — Hughes would have still been considered a stretch at #27, like Azubuike was. Desmond Bane and Jalen McDaniels were both still on the board. But I think it’s a coin flip as to who is the better prospect.
• I’m a little bit disappointed in how Jarrell Brantley is struggling to make his presence known on the floor. In his rookie season, Brantley had the opposite problem: whether it was the crazy playmaking, the effort all over the floor, or the boneheaded turnovers and play-breaking decisions, you always knew Brantley was out there. Now, he’s trying to fit in. That’s a good impulse, but he needs to find the really tricky balance of fitting in while contributing in his own, unique way. There’s a happy medium there somewhere.
• Sorry, local friends. Jake Toolson isn’t an NBA player. The defense isn’t close, and there’s not a lot of reason to believe it will ever be good enough.
• Trent Forrest is fun! The 6-4 point guard out of Florida State has one major, major weakness: he can’t shoot. He shot just 24.8% on less than one 3-point attempt per game in his collegiate career, and, well, the only way that works is if you’re Ben Simmons. Trent Forrest is not Ben Simmons.
But in this setting where opponents haven’t read the scouting report, he’s got a lot to offer: pick-and-roll slithery-ness, on-the-money passing, and free-throw-drawing craft. And on defense, that 6-7 wingspan and physicality makes him a real potential difference-maker. He certainly was in college, with impressive block and steal rates.
Is it mean to point out that Forrest has an NBA job right now, but Emmanuel Mudiay doesn’t? Okay, that’s wildly unfair: Mudiay can’t sign a two-way contract like Forrest did. But if Forrest can get the 3-ball to an acceptable level, he has the size, defense, and vision to stick in the league.