The Triple Team: Jazz with jaw-dropping, highlight-reel offense again in win vs. Bucks

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) looks for an opening as the Utah Jazz take on the Milwaukee Bucks at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City, on Friday, Feb. 12, 2021.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 129-115 win over the Milwaukee Bucks from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. These are the good ‘ol days

Look at this play. Look at it.

The play actually starts before this with a Donovan Mitchell’s transition pass that is incredible in its own right, a double-clutch number that gets him out of trouble and finds Royce O’Neale in the corner. It’s a little off-target, though, so O’Neale pass goes to Bogdanovic, who beats a closing out Dante DiVincenzo by throwing the wild behind the back bounce pass to Mitchell in the corner.

Mitchell completes the sequence, though, with the best pass of them all, a 50-foot hook shot pass over the defense but right to a streaking Joe Ingles. Ingles’ part is exceptional, too: he catches the ball high and shoots higher, all in a nanosecond: his shot release here is anything but slow-mo Joe. Anything less means Brook Lopez can close it out.

It’s a completely audacious play. It’s three highlight-reel passes in 10 seconds, leading to a shot that’s the perfect balance of tough but beautiful. The composite picture is jaw-dropping.

I’m trying to remember the last time I saw a Jazz play with mixtape passes chained together like that, and there’s probably an obvious candidate sometime more recently than this video, but this is the one that came to my mind.

It’s a completely different kind of play, but it shares some of the spiritual DNA: highlight passes, but the right plays in quick succession to get the easy look, Earl Watson to Andrei Kirilenko to Ronnie Price. Bingo, bango, bongo: magic.

This version of the Jazz is the version I first started to watch seriously, and so there’s a great deal of nostalgia attached to them in my mind. With Deron Williams in attendance tonight, it was easy to think back to that era.

And yet, there’s no real doubt to me: this current Jazz team is superior. This team is moving the ball to a degree unlike any other team in recent Jazz history, shooting more and better than any team in Jazz history, and, oh, by the way, feature’s the league’s best defensive player on the other end. It’s basketball nirvana, all over the court, double-digit times per game.

We’re witnessing something special here. That doesn’t mean that the Jazz don’t have much more to do, that they couldn’t still disappoint from this point forward. It doesn’t mean that the job is done, far from it. We’re not even halfway done with the regular season, for goodness sakes.

But we’ve seen enough to know: these are the good ‘ol days, the ones you’ll talk about years from now. There should, hopefully, be more to come.

Enjoy it. Savor it. Drink it in.

2. To shoot, or not to shoot?

Some of the Jazz’s success this season has been because of a changed shot profile with regards to the shot clock.

Think of your average basketball possession. At any given second, the player with the ball can probably shoot, right? Most of the time, it’s not going to be a good shot, but NBA players can pull the trigger basically whenever.

The key decision for players in an offense is this: should I shoot now, or should I do more offense stuff — run a play, pass the ball, call for a screen, drive, pumpfake, whatever — to try to get a better shot?

As Nylon Calculus’ Todd Whitehead pointed out, there’s a name for these kinds of problems in the real world: optimal stopping problems.

The classic example is one we’ve all faced: imagine driving down a street, looking for a parking spot close to your destination. You see an open spot. Do you take it, or do you keep driving and look for a better spot? It’s a tough choice!

In the NBA’s version of the optimal stopping problem, we’ve learned an important lesson over thousands of games: players tend to overrate the value of waiting to shoot. In general, the better shots come earlier in the shot clock. Again, from Whitehead’s article:

From Todd Whitehead's Optimal Stopping article on Nylon Calculus. (https://fansided.com/2020/04/27/nylon-calculus-basketball-optimal-stopping-problem/)

Shot quality tends to go down as you get deeper in a possession.

The Jazz, in the past few years, would get super deep into possessions, driving and kicking and driving and kicking until they were satisfied with the shot they had or time ran out. They ended up with a league-leading percentage of late-shot-clock opportunities, and while they were better than average, it wasn’t necessarily great offense overall.

These Jazz? They’ll shoot it quickly. Jordan Clarkson, Bojan Bogdanovic, Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, and even Joe Ingles are all willing to get it up early in the clock if they feel they’re open. And why not? Those 40% threes are very efficient offense. Here’s Joe’s two pullup threes, both taken with 19 seconds left on the shot clock. Who cares? They’re good shots!

If these Jazz see a good parking spot, they’ll take it. They’re rarely driving around to try go get a better one, then getting caught having to make a U-turn.

3. Georges Niang’s defensive improvement

Here are the Jazz’s top 3 players by on-court defensive rating so far this season:

1. Mike Conley: 98.9 defensive rating

2. Georges Niang: 99.6 defensive rating

3. Rudy Gobert: 102.8 defensive rating

While some would decry Conley and Niang’s presence above Gobert on this list as proof that defensive stats are terrible, I’d argue that the list is actually pretty revealing of what’s working most for the Jazz this season: the bench minutes at the end of the first and third quarter and the beginning of the second and fourth quarters. That, after all, is when Conley, Niang, and Gobert are in the game together, the lineup that has been wrecking opposing second units.

To be absolutely clear, Gobert deserves most of the credit for this lineup working. Bench players driving into Gobert has never been wise, but there’s seemingly an infinite supply of new bench players to learn this lesson. Conley does a nice job of filtering opponents to Gobert, too.

But Niang’s presence on this list does show one thing: that putting Niang in the game doesn’t break a defense anymore. That might have been true last season, when opposing offenses targeted Niang frequently. The result was fouls, easy baskets, forced rotations, and a lot of difficulty in getting stops

The Jazz challenged Niang to be better defensively this season, and he has been. He’s moving laterally much quicker, staying in front of his opponents. It’s no longer a wise idea to target Niang one-on-one as part of a possession, it’s better for teams to just run their normal offense.

Where, yes, they might find themselves running into one DPOY down low. With Gobert, good enough can be great.