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The Triple Team: Did Miami find a potential weak spot in the Jazz’s defense, or was this a one-game wonder?

Utah Jazz forward Bojan Bogdanovic, center, drives to the basket as Miami Heat guard Kendrick Nunn (25) and guard Duncan Robinson (55) defend during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 124-116 loss to the Miami Heat from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Heat target Bogdanovic in pick and roll, score frequently

Miami’s Eric Spoelstra is one of the best coaches in the league, with an adaptable, veteran roster.

So looking to keep his team’s 4-game win streak going, Spoelstra was aggressive in adapting his team’s game plan to his opponent. And that meant something we haven’t seen much of this year: opponents going to great lengths to target Bojan Bogdanovic.

The Heat would have Bogdanovic’s man come up and set a screen for Jimmy Butler. Then Butler would attack, forcing a switch. Then, Butler would drive on Bogdanovic, and generally draw a foul or get all the way to the rim.

This is a borderline whistle that you sometimes don’t see called. But Bogdanovic does have a chicken wing in there, which isn’t legal defensive position. When Butler goes up, it’s probably a foul. Now, do I wish referee Mitchell Ervin called it when he saw the illegal contact and not after the miss? Absolutely. I hate late whistles with a passion.

Regardless, I asked Donovan Mitchell about Butler’s foul-drawing prowess after the game.

“He’s an artist at it, And I think that, he’s just understanding where the mismatches are as far as you know, who can slide their feet and who can’t slide their feet — I mean, this is throughout the entire league.”

Butler’s one of the league’s top players at drawing fouls, but Mitchell noted a good point: Bogdanovic is not as quick as sliding his feet as the other Jazz perimeter players.

That’s reflected in Bogdanovic’s game-low plus-minus of -18 — when he was out of the game, the Jazz were fine, but with him in there, they were pretty weak defensively.

Here’s the big question: how much do you think this game’s performance reflects what’s likely to happen moving forward, especially in the playoffs? Will teams be able to do attack Bogey so successfully then? It’s actually hard to know. Remember, Bogdanovic hasn’t faced playoff game-planning with the Jazz before. He did with Indiana, and actually took a lead role in defending LeBron James in a series that the Pacers impressively took the Cavs to seven games in. Referees might swallow that whistle in the playoffs.

Nor have the Jazz had real problems defending with Bogdanovic on the court this year. It’s hard to call Bogdanovic an impact defender, but he has a relatively high positive adjusted plus-minus when he’s on the court, in fact, just behind Conley and Gobert’s.

On the other hand, Bogey’s best defensive moment was three years ago now, and it’s reasonable to expect that the 31-year-old has probably slipped on that end. The eye test has not been as friendly as plus-minus is.

I think in a playoff game, the Jazz probably finish the game with Joe Ingles over Bogdanovic if a team was hunting him to this extent, but for now, it made sense to keep Bogdanovic in there and see how he could do in a tough situation. It’s definitely something to watch moving forward.

2. Jazz have some success with a zone

Early on in the game, the Heat were having a lot of success with the Butler/Bam Adebayo pick and roll. So to try to stop them from using it, the Jazz switched to a zone defense.

Zone defenses in the NBA have a lot of flaws: the NBA is home to the world’s best shooters, who are usually able to find space in a zone. And with how athletic NBA players are, defensive rebounding can be a huge challenge without the benefit of having an obvious man to box out.

And yet, they can be successful, because of how thoroughly they can force an opponent to change their game plan. No one knows that better than the Heat themselves, who used that zone frequently last year on the way to the Finals. The Jazz have only had limited success with it generally, but this year they’ve been less afraid to use it.

Look at the confusion of this turnover from Kendrick Nunn: this is just a gift of a miscommunication that would rarely happen against a man-to-man defense.

This play shows another benefit to the Jazz’s zone: putting Royce O’Neale and Donovan Mitchell at the top of the zone gives the Jazz two pretty deceptively long guards who are pretty good in these kind of free safety situations. Goran Dragic thinks he can make this pass, but Mitchell swallows it up.

That being said, watch that second play again: what if Dragic had delivered an accurate ball around Mitchell? Well, then it’s an easy two-on-one in the corner, and the Heat are going to get an open three out of it. But as a way to break an opponent’s rhythm, the zone can be a valuable tool.

3. Free-throw percentages are back

There was some concern earlier on in the season about the Jazz’s free-throw percentages.

Through the season’s first 13 games the Jazz were 29th in the league in free-throw percentage, shooting just 68.7% from the line. Rudy Gobert was the biggest culprit of missed free-throws: he was only shooting 48% from the charity stripe at that point in the season.

Well, since then, they’ve shot 83.7% from the line, third-best in the league over that stretch. They’re now 17th in the league in free-throw percentage, after ranking 15th last year. They shot 91% for the game tonight. Actually, the two missed free-throws came from Mitchell in the fourth quarter, and they felt big — but it’s just hard to complain too much about 91%.

Tonight, Gobert shot 7-7, which pushed his free-throw percentage back up to 60.8% after he shot 63.0% last year. While you’d like to see year-over-year improvement, the difference is now just a handful of free-throws that were missed compared to last year.

Anyway, it’s a classic example of regression to the mean at work: if the Jazz are unexpectedly bad at something, and there’s not much of a reason for the downturn, it’s an obvious candidate to improve.

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