The Triple Team: Jazz rout shorthanded Cavs, Rudy’s offensive experiments and the new COVID-19 restrictions

Utah Jazz's Donovan Mitchell (45) drives to the basket as Cleveland Cavaliers' Larry Nance Jr. watches during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Three thoughts on the Jazz’s 117-87 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Jazz take advantage of very shorthanded Cavs team

That was a really bad Cavs team the Jazz were lucky enough to face up against tonight. No Collin Sexton or Darius Garland (the surprisingly successful backcourt that has been dubbed “Sexland” by those in Cleveland), no Kevin Love or Andre Drummond, and not even a Dante Exum revenge game appearance. Instead, the Cavs largely had to start their bench five, which meant their third unit got the bench minutes.

And it was ugly. None of the Cavs’ remaining players are adept at creating shots, which just meant a lot of late-shot-clock “Uh, I guess I have to shoot this” chucks at the rim, most of them missed.

Cavaliers shot chart against the Jazz on 1/12/21.

Meanwhile, on offense, the Jazz knew that the Cavs have been playing a highly-aggressive, paint-focused defense. And after an initial slow start, the Jazz got the 3-ball rolling and had a 30-point lead by the 4th quarter.

It was a straightforward as it gets in the NBA. Jazz fans know that wins aren’t necessarily a given against poor opposition, but when they have no real ballhandlers beyond Yogi Ferrell, it’s just going to be a tough contest. The Knicks, Nets, and Wolves were three really bad losses already this season for the Jazz, but all of those teams had capable guards, from Austin Rivers, Elfrid Payton, Ricky Rubio, Caris Levert, Kyrie Irving, you name it.

But the Jazz can stop Damyean Dotson and Isaac Okoro’s offense. And they did.

2. Rudy Gobert’s offensive experimentation

Let’s talk about Rudy Gobert’s offense: in five of the last seven games, he shot 2-7 from the field tonight, 1-5 against the Pistons, 3-10 against the Nets, and 2-7 against the Spurs.

That’s not acceptable for someone with Gobert’s shot profile, nearly all of which are layups or dunks. To me, the most troublesome aspect is how poorly Gobert has done at the stuff we know he’s good at. His point totals have declined by a couple of points this year, (15.1 to 12.4), and his free-throw percentage is now down below 50%. This play, from the Detroit game, just needs to be two points.

That’s his bread and butter, and it has been in his career, but he’s regressed in these areas so far this year. That needs to change.

He’s also definitely experimenting more during games — isolations, taking midrange shots, and generally attempting new stuff. I’m not sure if this is related to his more normal offensive struggles, but he’s putting himself in his own bad positions through attempting isolations like this:

Isolations without an advantage are essentially a bad idea for everyone, not just Gobert. Referees aren’t going to give the driver the benefit of the doubt. And that ignores the 17-footer he missed badly tonight — he airballed it, in fact.

Now, I’ve watched Gobert practice for years now: he certainly can make that jump shot. He’s been practicing dribble drives for years now. And yet, he hasn’t been able to do it efficiently in games.

Yet there’s no denying that a Gobert with a more skilled offensive game would be a better player, and so I completely understand why he’s pushing himself. By and large, he’s limiting these crazy offensive experiments to bad opponents, or late shot clock situations — the kind of times where he doesn’t hurt the team too much if he fails.

In the end, I don’t think Gobert’s offensive experiments will work out. He’s 28, in the prime of his career, and I suspect it’s a little too late for him to just wildly change his skillset overnight. It reminds me a little bit of when Derrick Favors tried to add the 3-ball to his game, which also didn’t work.

Yet in both cases, I understand why the big men want to try to adapt and improve, and I think there’s a case to be made for them to try it, especially early on in the season. There’s an outside shot of having a Brook Lopez-esque renaissance, and playing the most valuable ball late in their careers. It’s a low-cost, high-upside bet — so long as he cuts it out and plays well in the big moments.

3. The postponed game and new COVID regulations

Back in 2016, I was on one of my first road trips with the team when the Jazz’s game with the Washington Wizards was postponed due to a massive snowstorm. (The ensuing five-day stay in New York with a friend as flights were canceled all along the East Coast meant some of the most fun I’ve ever had — we had snowball fights in the streets!) They ended up playing the game about a month later.

Now in 2021, the cursed Jazz/Wizards matchup is off again, this time as the NBA’s COVID regulations meant that the Wizards won’t have enough eligible players to compete in the planned contest tomorrow. They’ll try to reschedule the game for the second half of the season, the schedule for which hasn’t been released yet.

The cancellation was the league’s fifth in four days, and resulted in an emergency meeting from the league’s owners today. In the end, they decided to make the COVID protocols stricter — teams will no longer be able to eat out at league-approved restaurants, and “long-term friends” will no longer be able to visit players in their hotel rooms.

This is good, and makes things more likely to work. That being said, it also highlights just how difficult it is to make a league work outside of a bubble, especially one like the NBA trying to play 72 games indoors over the course of a winter and spring.

In particular, there are just going to be some nonsensical rules. For example, Washington’s Bradley Beal was considered in close contact with the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum due to a maskless conversation the two had after the game. The 48 minutes of maskless play before was not considered close contact.

To defend this, the league is standing behind the “six feet and 15 minute” guidelines that the CDC espouses. I’ve written about this constantly in other sections of the newspaper, but those numbers are just guesstimates. “Six feet” is nowhere near a worldwide standard, and breathing heavily, talking and yelling frequently makes droplets extend beyond that. And 15 minutes isn’t necessary at all — you just get more and more droplets the longer you’re with an infected person. One minute isn’t likely to mean an inhaled infected droplet, but it certainly can; just as two minutes or five or ten or thirty can.

It’s all a spectrum of infectiousness. And I think the NBA is taking reasonable precautions here, but the base activity that they’re in the business of — basketball — is going to inherently lead to some spread among players. Players are certainly also going to contract COVID in their home markets, staying with family who participate in the community.

I think, overall, it’s a good thing that the league is trying: the economic benefits probably are larger than the health costs given that the health risks to the average NBA player are low. But I also think we should keep our eyes open about how many pitfalls there are going to be while playing in a pandemic. More games are going to be suspended, and while the new rules will help, the problem is certainly not solved.