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The Triple Team: Jazz snap Heat 4-game winning streak through elite defensive play

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Miye Oni (81) is celebrated by teammates as the Utah Jazz take on the Miami Heat at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City, on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 112-94 win over the Miami Heat from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. One of the best defensive games I’ve ever seen from Utah

Look, the Jazz have had a really good defense for the majority of Quin Snyder’s tenure. From 2016 to 2019, they finished in the league’s top three defenses for three consecutive years. I have seen a lot of good Jazz defense. And this game is among the very best defensive games by Utah I’ve seen.

Obviously, we have to start with the six minute stretch in which the Jazz didn’t allow the Heat to score any points.

Wait. Which one?

There were two of those?

Yes, there were actually two stretches in this game in which the Heat scored zero points in over six minutes of action. There was the one that everyone will note, the 16-0 run that started the second half. But they also didn’t allow the Heat to score from the 7:45 mark to the 1:25 mark of the second quarter, either. That was a 14-0 run for the Jazz.

If you outscore your opponent 30-0 over a quarter’s worth of basketball, you’re going to win. If you force your opponent to not score on 13 possessions in a row, and then later in the game, force your opponent to not score on 14 possessions in a row, you’re going to win.

The best defensive possession of the game was this one, a double-block from Gobert on Bam Adebayo, a likely All-Star, and then Jimmy Butler.

I also think Royce O’Neale played an exceptional defensive game, as he was mostly matched up on Jimmy Butler. The Heat got a lot from Butler/Kelly Olynyk screens in last year’s playoff run, but here, O’Neale just reads the pocket pass. Heck, even if it gets through, Derrick Favors is there, just in case.

I criticized O’Neale early in the year defensively, but he’s really found his rhythm guarding these bigger wings, and sometimes even bigs. It allows him to do what he does best, which is use his strength and smarts on the interior. He’s a real All-Defense team candidate right now.

Gobert is the obvious Defensive Player of the Year. I’m not saying that as a homer analyst — I didn’t have Gobert first on my ballot last year. I absolutely would through 27 games this year. He changes everything for opposing offenses.

When Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was asked after the game about his team’s scoring draughts, he started by talking about the Jazz’s defense. “Yeah, they’re they’re definitely unique. You don’t face a team like this on a nightly basis,” Spoelstra said.

No, you certainly do not.

2. Donovan Mitchell’s little scoring spurt

As good as the Jazz’s defense was all game long, the Jazz never got separation until the second half, when Donovan Mitchell went on a personal 7-0 run to open up the period, forcing a quick Spoelstra timeout. Here are all three plays.

Before this sprint, he actually missed a quick three, too, as the Heat went under a screen against him.

That first layup, the Jazz do some fancy hand-off action at the top of the key, and Adebayo is up high defending. No adequate rim protector at the rim to help, really, and Mitchell gets the layup. The second layup was sneaky, a split the defense look that is much tougher than he made it look.

But the three is my favorite. Swing, swing, shoot. Mitchell just fires immediately. It’s not that Kendrick Nunn is super far away from Mitchell, but he catches the ball and just jumps straight up and down, so that by the time Mitchell releases it, Nunn’s hand isn’t even close. It’s a very clean look, out of nearly nothing — a showcase of both skill and athleticism.

I love what Mitchell did coming out of halftime. Instead of wallowing in his 4-11 first half, he thought to himself “Look, I’m just going to attack. No dilly-dallying, I’ll just get the ball, and either shoot or drive immediately.”

It’s related to what I wrote about yesterday — rather than having Mitchell try to bail the Jazz out of possessions late in the shot clock, why not get some early offense. As soon as Mitchell put the pedal to the metal, this game was theirs.

3. Georges Niang’s offense

Speaking of things I wrote about yesterday... that game’s third Triple Team point was about Georges Niang’s defensive improvement.

Niang’s offense hasn’t gotten as much attention this year; after all, he’s shooting only 33% from 3-point range so far. After two consecutive years in the 40s, fans want to see that extra seven percent.

And yet, I was really impressed with his offensive game today, and in particular, his vision on the court. Niang had five assists tonight: three for dunks, one for a layup, and one for a Mitchell three.

I love this play. Niang gets the ball in transition, dribbles it up, and fakes the handoff to Jordan Clarkson that everyone is expecting — I certainly was. But he twists out of it and instead finds Gobert at the basket for an easy lob. Great trickery!

This sneaky ball through to Gobert is nice, too: the Heat converge on him, and Niang waits long enough then dishes it to Gobert for the easy layup.

Truthfully, that probably should have been a kickout pass to the perimeter. With four Heat defenders in the paint, it has a high likelihood of getting stripped. And yet, we have to congratulate cool plays when they happen, and Thurl Bailey’s reaction, an elongated “wow”, is evidence of it being a very cool play.

Niang’s best asset is his quick trigger from three, which can either get them good looks early in a possession or, at his height, actually can bail them out of tight situations late in possessions. No one stays attached to Niang because they’re worried about the Jazz’s other weapons, so he always has the ability to fire. It’s a nice luxury to have.

Niang’s spot in the rotation, at first glance, is the obvious one to upgrade at the trade deadline or buyout market. I actually do think the Jazz should be buyers at this trade deadline, even if they win every game for the next month. This team is good enough to win it all as is, but there might be a game here or there where something happens, foul trouble or injuries, and you might need more depth. There might also be a fringe defensive or offensive situation where you need a player with a certain skillset. The playoffs are a crucible, and it pays to be ready for them.

But it’s not at all certain that whoever would be available would get playing time every night — they might not be an upgrade over Niang. He’s improved again this year, and has earned his spot in the rotation.

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