That beautiful offense from the opener in Portland seems so long ago already, doesn’t it?
The questions is, what’s become of the Utah Jazz’s ability to generate open looks, to strike the right balance between attacking the rim and firing up 3s? What happened to the offensive megastar that Donovan Mitchell became in the bubble? And where has Bojan Bogdanovic’s shot inexplicably disappeared to?
There weren’t really any easy answers to any of those questions in the Utah Jazz’s 106-95 loss to the visiting Phoenix Suns at Vivint Arena on Thursday night.
The one thing that was apparent, though, was that for a third consecutive game, Utah’s offense was disrupted by aggressive, physical half-court ball pressure from an opponent. Against the Wolves, Josh Okogie and Malik Beasley threw things off. In the next game, OKC’s Lu Dort wreaked havoc. And vs. Phoenix, Jevon Carter seemed to get under Mitchell’s skin.
“Teams have been coming out aggressive and trying to take us out of what we do offensively, and it always takes us too long to react,” said Rudy Gobert, who again was one of the Jazz’s few bright spots, totaling 18 points and 14 rebounds. “I think we just got to always analyze the situation, analyze the way they guard us, and we have the weapons to counter that aggressivity and keep our aggressivity. And tonight, it just took a little too long to react again.”
Indeed, the first half saw Phoenix eventually pull away once the Suns started some shots themselves. Utah recovered to start the third, then regressed again, and it wasn’t until deep in the fourth that they finally reeled the game back into single digits for a little while.
Most of their trouble stems from the likes of Mitchell, Mike Conley, and Joe Ingles being physically disrupted by tough on-ball defense.
After three straight games of that, that seems to be the book on Utah — get in their face, throw them off, and they’ll take too long to do anything about it.
Mitchell, for one, is sick of seeing it, and said that once the Jazz start reacting better to it, the fix will come pretty easily. They already have the capacity to adapt to such a defense in place — now it just becomes a matter of executing the right counter-attacks.
“The biggest thing is just playing through it. Teams are going to be physical with us and we just got to play … We played aggressive, we just didn’t play smart. And when I say smart, I mean reads — understanding that if they want to take one action away, there’s another action. We have hundreds of reads within our offense, so if you take one away, we should always be ready for the next one,” Mitchell said. “And we didn’t do a good job of that. The pace slowed down, which allowed them to be able to do that in the halfcourt. But, you know, at the end of day, give them credit for taking us out of our actions, but we’ve got to be sharper on the offensive end to play through those things.”
Both Conley and coach Quin Snyder credited the Suns with “speeding us up.” In effect, that aggressiveness encouraged the Jazz to abandon their scheme, to short-cut their offensive reads, and to try to ram right through it.
Obviously — as evidenced by Utah’s 41.7% shooting from the field and 12-for-34 effort from deep – it didn’t work.
Snyder said the best counter to physical defenses is to run more pick-and-roll, to “space the floor and try to get an advantage.” The problem, in this case, was not enough passing and too much 1-on-1 play. Rather than driving and kicking and swinging the ball, there was over-dribbling and silly forays into the paint that had little chance of succeeding.
Snyder also said the Jazz could have done more in transition: “I don’t think we ran the court as well as we need to, and oftentimes, if you’re getting that type of pressure in halfcourt, if you really run and create space for yourselves, it allows you to have a more attacking mindset,” he said.
Mitchell singled himself out as one of the problems.
He shot just 9 for 23 and registered only three assists. In one particular stretch, with Carter annoying him, he started to dribble, then over-dribble, looking for ways to shake his pesky opponent, but in the process throwing off the offense. Meanwhile, he acknowledged that his poor shooting to start the season has become a problem.
“I’ve been shooting the ball like s—. There’s no other way around it,” he said. “I just got to keep pushing. At the end of the day, I just got to keep working; trust my work and trust the process to stay the course. Everybody looks at me as a guy to kind of create on offense, not just with scoring, but with everything, and I’ve just got to be more efficient. I’ll figure it out, it’ll come. But right now it’s hurting us. And I take that upon myself to be better. But there’s no other way around it — I’m just not shooting well. Or playing well, to be honest.”
Conley said it comes down to patience — being patient enough to make the right read; being patient enough not to attack foolhardily.
The last three opponents have been the aggressors, have come out and pushed the Jazz around, caused them to lose their force. But Gobert is confident the Jazz will get back to where they want to.
“It’s something that once we clean that up, we’re going to be able to score on everybody,” Gobert said. “We got to analyze the way they guard us, match their physicality, and we can let nobody take us out of what we do. We’ve got all the reads, all the weapons, all the creators — we got everything we need just be able to counter any defensive skill.”
JAZZ REPORT: SUNS 106, JAZZ 95
KEY MOMENT • After the Jazz cut it back to single digits, then lost a coach’s challenge, the Suns ran an out-of-bounds play for Devin Booker, who drained the shot and effectively put the game away.
BIG NUMBER: 0 • Number of shots made by Bojan Bogdanovic in 5 attempts.
UP NEXT • Utah will get its first back-to-back of the season, as the Clippers come to the Viv on Friday for a 7 p.m. tipoff.