The Triple Team: Donovan Mitchell’s passing, team defense leads Jazz to impressive win in tough circumstances

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) makes a pass in front of Indiana Pacers forward Doug McDermott (20) during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Indianapolis, Sunday, Feb. 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 103-95 win over the Indiana Pacers from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. What an effort from the Jazz

It’s not a sexy win — an 8-point win against the 12-12 Pacers won’t exactly stand out when you look at the game log at season’s end.

But this game was wildly impressive. The list of things going against the Jazz was pretty long, actually:

• It was the third game in four days, and the third game of a road trip.

• It was an early morning game, meaning little rest and early wake-ups.

• Mike Conley was out for the first time all season due to hamstring tightness.

• The Pacers are a long, physical defense with Myles Turner down low, who leads the NBA in blocks. The Jazz have typically struggled against defenses with excellent shotblockers.

• And the Pacers have also allowed the fewest transition possessions of any team in the NBA. They get back well, stopping maybe the most dangerous element of the Jazz’s attack.

And honestly, all of that showed. The Jazz were clearly sluggish. Open shots were missed all over the floor, usually short due to tired legs. The Jazz’s offense lacked significant smoothness due to Conley’s absence, and they found themselves deep in the shot clock over and over again. They only shot 15-29 at the rim tonight. The Jazz only had nine fast break points all night, well below their averages.

They still won.

They won with just an incredible defensive performance, holding the Pacers to a 96 offensive rating in the game. This won’t surprise you, but the key man was Rudy Gobert, who was just sensational once again today. As good as that 96 defensive rating looks as a team, when Gobert was in the game, it was just 87.

Gobert is just so good. I don’t need to clip the video, you all have seen Gobert dominate before. If Domantas Sabonis tried to post him up, and Gobert shut it down. If Malcolm Brogdon tried to isolate him on switches, Gobert invited the drive and got the block. Whenever the Pacers tried to drive and kick, Gobert was there.

I think Royce O’Neale deserves a lot of credit, too. Malcolm Brogdon is averaging 22 points per game this season, and he’s been absolutely terrific. But Brogdon never really got the time and space to get the efficient looks he usually feeds on. Limiting him to 15 points on 20 shots is a masterclass — you rarely see Brogdon get more shots than points, but the Jazz did it tonight.

It’s one of my favorite wins of the season, heck, it might be No. 1. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and while the offense may not have been pretty, but the defense more than made up for it.

2. Donovan Mitchell, setting up his passing

The offensive bright spot was Donovan Mitchell, who put up 27 points (9-25 shooting), 11 assists, and 9 rebounds. He almost got that elusive Jazz regular season triple-double.

(At this point, I’ll be honest: I’m rooting for guys not to get it. That Carlos Boozer against the Seattle Supersonics in 2008 was the last one is my favorite random weird stat in the NBA, and Mitchell picking one up would be the expected way for the streak to end. If it has to end, I want it to be an equally weird one. A Gobert triple-double, either with assists or blocks? Jordan Clarkson putting up huge assist and rebounding numbers somehow? A Miye Oni trip-dub in a spot start? The imagination runs wild.)

The best part of his game was Mitchell’s playmaking in Conley’s absence, which was just absurdly good. He really could have had 14 or 15 assists today if the Jazz knocked down more shots. But I love how Mitchell manipulated the defense to get his looks.

I asked him about it after the game today, and let’s use that quote to guide us through the video.

“It’s understanding, alright, this is how you have to get to look. You know the look is there, how am I making the pass? How am I setting up the pass?,” Mitchell said. “The passes, the reads, I see them. But since I’m, you know, small, they typically put guys who are kind of taller and longer on me. I got to be able to set it up to get to the open guy.”

“The pass to Derrick, for instance, I take you between the legs to get to my right hand to throw it.”

“When it’s Royce, you know, it’s understanding he’s popping, so being able to throw it back, or throw it over the top.”(At this point, Mitchell gestured with his two-hand pass.)

Mitchell didn’t mention this one, but I think it was my favorite of his passes today: he pumpfakes, spins, no-looks, and finds Gobert open for the dunk down low. Again, it’s about the setup that gives Gobert the opportunity.

“It seems fancy, but those are the ones I have to make because of my size. If you look at Joe (Ingles), it’s easier for Joe because he’s he’s 6-7, 6-8. My setups really help me more in my passing game,” Mitchell said. “That’s what I’ve been focusing on, being able to set up my pass. Once I get to the pass, I feel like I can make it, but I’ve got to get there because of how guys how they play me.”

The offense definitely missed Conley, but Mitchell’s ability to find teammates on these plays turned what could have been a pedestrian offensive night into a terrific one individually, and it was good enough for a win.

3. Offensive rebounding

While the shots weren’t falling for the Jazz today, they also collected a lot of their misses. They got 17 offensive rebounds for 24 second chance points today, second chances that they desperately needed at times. It wasn’t just Gobert (who had two) or Favors (three) with the offensive boards, but Donovan Mitchell (five), Jordan Clarkson (three), and Joe Ingles (two) got in the mixer as well.

It’s been a trend this season, with even the diminutive Mike Conley having a career high in offensive rebounds.

“It’s using our quickness sometimes. You know, you wouldn’t think of Mike as an offensive rebounder in a certain sense. But you can look at a guy like Patrick Beverley and how he rebounds (and learn something),” Quin Snyder said. “Anything we want to do that’s aggressive collectively is something that can can help us. I like what it’s done to our mindset.”

The Jazz have this really impressive balance going on, where they’ve had the second-best defense and the second-best offensive rebounding numbers. Usually, teams that attack the glass end up giving something back on the defensive end, because teams are able to get out in transition.

But the Jazz have been just so good defensively in the half court, that their middling transition defense numbers are actually okay. That’s allowed them to keep the offense rolling with these extra second-chance opportunities, which certainly made a difference tonight.