The Triple Team: Thunder’s Lu Dort gets better of Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell for 3 quarters — then Mitchell gets last laugh

Mike Conley also comes up big for Jazz with 20 points, 10 and 9 assists, just missing a triple-double

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) drives against Oklahoma City Thunder guard Luguentz Dort (5) during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Oklahoma City, Monday, Dec. 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 110-109 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Donovan Mitchell — finally — figures out the Lu Dort matchup in final six minutes

It was one of the worst games of Donovan Mitchell’s career. Well, for three and a half quarters.

After a 3-15 start from the field, Mitchell made five of his eight next shots to carry the Jazz to the win. Indeed, those baskets, and a couple of free throws, were the only 12 points that the Jazz scored in the final six minutes of the game, keeping them afloat on the offensive side of the floor.

Throughout, he was largely defended by Thunder second-year man Lu Dort, already considered one of the premier defenders in the NBA. And Dort really shut him down, as much as we’ve seen any defender contain Mitchell. I mean, this is beautiful — Mitchell does end up getting under him for a scoop layup, but he’s far enough away from the basket that it’s a really difficult one.

I think the turning point came when Dort started to tire a little bit. Check out this play: Mitchell is just jogging down the court, but Dort is too. He never gets fully in front, and the imbalance means Mitchell ends up with an easy open pull-up.

Dort got a little bit careless on the game winner, too. Conley drives, and Dort turns his body away from Mitchell, opening up a bit of separation. Mitchell receives Conley’s kickout, and Dort has to jump out far on the perimeter to try to stay attached. Right as Dort steps forward, Mitchell takes advantage of the lost balance by driving to the paint.

It was compelling stuff, with things to learn for both players. Mitchell clearly tried to do too much on Dort early, even passing up some open looks to get some contested ones. But Dort’s slip in focus in the final six minutes ended up costing his team the game, even with a brilliant 42 minutes before that.

2. Mike Conley, saving the Jazz

Mike Conley had 20 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists on Monday night — one of the Jazz’s best chances yet to finally get a regular season triple double.

Remember, the Jazz haven’t had one of those since Carlos Boozer did it in 2008 against the Seattle Supersonics, which remains my favorite current running Jazz stat. I mean, the NBA has seen players average triple doubles now, and some truly terrible players have picked one up. Somehow, it still evades a Jazzman in regular season action.

Anyway, Conley seemed like the one guy who wasn’t frazzled in the early going, as Mitchell and Bojan Bogdanovic struggled mightily to open the game. With the ball in his hands, the Jazz were getting really good possessions, like this Gobert alley-oop:

You can see Conley setting up rookie guard Theo Maledon there with ease. Make a move to the baseline, lose him on the screen, know that he’s going to be late to the rotation, and bam, an alley-oop.

I think Conley is going to have a lot of situations like this during the season. The truth is that it’s really difficult to guard all of Mitchell, Bogdanovic, and Conley with good defenders; and Conley is likely to get a number of matchups against a team’s third-best perimeter defender. (Royce O’Neale will likely get the fourth-best defender.) If Conley can consistently win those matchups, the Jazz will always have an answer to go to offensively.

On Monday, Conley’s play was the difference between holding onto the rope and losing it completely, giving his teammates time to climb with him. In the end, the result was another once-in-a-decade result: the Jazz’s first regular season win in Oklahoma City since 2010.

3. Risk vs. reward in help defense

One reason the Jazz were at real risk of losing this game was some lackluster perimeter defense. At times, it deemed like it could be a strategic choice — the Jazz aren’t the only team that have chosen to try to ignore Lu Dort in order to help against the Thunder’s drives, and other teams will no doubt try it too.

But I think it’s a calculation that the Jazz were a little bit too eager on, giving up wide open threes to the Thunder repeatedly. Yes, the Thunder have some weak perimeter shooters, but giving up open threes even to iffy shooters might well be worse mathematically compared to some contested interior stuff.

The Thunder actually took advantage of this on their very first play of the game. Darius Bazley sets a super low screen on Mitchell for his teammate Dort, and even though it’d be much easier to just go over it and follow Dort, Mitchell goes under anyway. The result is an open three.

Or this play, where all of Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, and Royce O’Neale collapse onto Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. In the end, O’Neale and Mitchell end up colliding, but Mitchell was probably too far away from the strong-side corner to get a solid contest in anyway. Al Horford is open on the play, too, and even Jordan Clarkson takes a step towards SGA in response to the drive.

Now heck, maybe I’m overreacting to a 5-7 3-point shooting night from Dort; it might not happen again. But he was a 35.7% 3-point shooter on wide-open shots last year, which means 107 points per 100 possessions — pretty good for the half-court! The extra rotations away from him seem counterproductive.

I once had an NBA coach tell me that the name of the defensive game in the league was to minimize rotations: obviously, open drives to the rim are bad, but if you can reduce the number of times you need to help from outside-in, you’ll be in better shape throughout a possession.

The key benefit of having Gobert on your roster is as that paint protector, so the perimeter guys don’t necessarily have to leave their man. Gobert was doing his job inside, but I think too frequently the Thunder found space on the outside due to the Jazz’s decisions.