The Triple Team: Jazz defense is at its very best once again as Jazz blow out Mavericks

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) blocks the shot from Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 29, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 120-101 win over the Dallas Mavericks from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Jazz defense sets a tone early

Coming into the game, it would have been reasonable to expect the Mavs to start the game hot, looking for revenge. After all, the Jazz embarrassed Dallas earlier on Wednesday, and they had the chance to make a statement that they were a team to be reckoned with. The New Orleans Pelicans did that last week in their early play, even in a loss.

Then Utah’s defense came out and just absolutely shut down everything that the Mavs considered doing.

Here’s a situation that gives a lot of teams trouble: Kristaps Porzingis at the top of the key, with the rest of the Mavericks spaced. He has the ability to put the ball on the floor and dribble, and gets past O’Neale’s hard closeout — a good idea to prevent the 3-point shot. But Gobert just seamlessly sinks into the paint, stops Porzingis, while O’Neale covers Gobert’s man. From there, Porzingis is just stuck. The result: a steal and three points for the Jazz.

Conley ended up with a couple of steals in the first quarter, but that wasn’t all that was going well. Gobert was also completely locking down the paint — the Mavs had zero shots at the rim with Gobert in the game in the early going.

Then, potential disaster struck: Gobert picked up his second foul and had to go to the bench. Without Derrick Favors available due to low back soreness, the Jazz would have to change up their defense and start being more aggressive in pick and roll, switching or hedging high.

They were fantastic at that, too. I mean, here’s James Johnson on Georges Niang, and I think pretty recently, you would have said that was a bad situation for the Jazz to be in. But Johnson isolates, can’t get past Niang, and the Iowa State man doesn’t foul... He just keeps his arms straight and makes it a tough shot for Johnson.

In the end, the play-by-play called it a Driving Floating Bank Jump Shot — the more adjectives the play-by-play uses, the harder the shot probably was. Niang’s been terrific defensively during the winning streak, and it’s the highest level of play we’ve seen from him in his career.

There were just a million of these quality moments — the Jazz nailing every single one of their rotations, using their length, swiping on the ball and recovering, all as a unit. The Mavs took a ton of mid-range tough shots, missed most, and in the end, scored just 12 points in the first quarter. The Jazz scored 37 (many of their offensive points came off defensive success), and the game was essentially over.

The defense is just so, so impressive, and has been the biggest factor in the Jazz’s 11 wins.

2. Juwan Morgan’s contributions

I gave Niang a video shoutout above, but Juwan Morgan deserves his own section. Without Favors and with Gobert in foul trouble, Morgan played 21 minutes tonight and was pretty terrific across the board.

Again, we’ll start with the defense, both inside and out. Because the Jazz were switching a lot of their actions, Morgan ended up guarding Luka Doncic in isolation a lot. Doncic is probably a top-10 toughest player to guard for a player in that situation, and the undrafted second-year player didn’t panic, just stayed in front. Morgan never bit on any of Doncic’s moves, and the result was Luka spamming the step-back 3-point jumper button.

Doncic made only one of them. He’s not at the Harden level with that shot — it’s not a terrible option with the shot clock running down, but it’s a win for the defense if he’s taking a lot of them.

Morgan also ended up with three steals on the night. One came while hedging high on Luka’s pick and roll, one came on a dumb pass by Willie Cauley-Stein, and one came as he poked away an entry pass down low. He ended up with six fouls, so it wasn’t all positive, but I thought he was unlucky to get a few of those calls (the referees were very whistle-happy tonight).

But the offensive game was nice too. The job for Morgan isn’t very complicated offensively: set screens, take the open threes when you get them, fight for putbacks, and be a capable option when the defense allows it. He did exactly that tonight. He shot 2-4 from deep, stepping into the shots confidently. And this was a nice spinning and-one to take advantage when the Mavs put too much defensive attention on Mike Conley.

I remember going down to watch SLC Stars games at Salt Lake Community college at the beginning of last year, and it was just evident how much this new guy knew how to play. It seemed like he had a hand in every good Stars play on both ends of the floor, nailing defensive rotations and rebounding efforts, finding his teammates well and having a capable offensive game himself. The Jazz signed him pretty quickly because if they didn’t, someone else would have jumped.

Here’s the thing about Morgan: he’s pretty athletically limited. He’s not going to make a lot of highlight plays. But the thing he does have at a drastically higher level than most NBA role players is basketball IQ. In nearly every situation, he just does exactly the right thing, and he showed that tonight.

3. Nailing the scout

Joe Ingles said something interesting today at Jazz shootaround, about the pride that the Jazz players have in “knowing the scout.”

He said that, as a player, he sees the time and effort that the coaching staff puts into every game’s scouting report. For each game, an assistant coach is tasked with building the report, which means going back and watching the opponent at a detailed level, learning the plays, and then putting together a video package so that the Jazz know what’s coming.

“We’ve got guys on our team who carry around iPads for majority of the day prior to coming in here to play the game,” Mike Conley pointed out. “So we’re locked in on our assignments. When guys have bought in, act like that and their ability to prepare like that, the game is the easy part.”

The game is the easy part.

Think about that, and how much it stands in opposition to, say, the Allen Iverson Practice Rant approach.

There are so many players in this league who are legitimately professional in their work, but maybe don’t pay this much attention to what has to be learned on a night-to-night basis.

After all, there are so many games in a regular season, a game every other day. In between the games, there’s the demand to get better at the game through individual and team practice. There’s treatment guys have to get on their bodies, and rest to get. Players have families, sponsorship responsibilities, and of course, many typically have a roaring nightlife. A lot of times, there just isn’t that much time to focus on the scouting report.

When a team like the Mavericks looks that legitimately befuddled, the scouting report is a large part of it. Credit to Snyder’s team of assistant coaches for creating such good reports, yes — but also credit the players for doing their homework every night. Right now, the Jazz are nailing every aspect of it.

And they’re legitimately making the games look easy.