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The Triple Team: Jazz can’t keep Zion Williamson, Pelicans out of the paint in poor defensive game

Utah Jazz forward Bojan Bogdanovic, front right, shoots over New Orleans Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram (14) and guard Lonzo Ball (2) in the first half of an NBA basketball game in New Orleans, Monday, March 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 129-124 loss over the New Orleans Pelicans from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Jazz can’t keep the Pelicans out of the paint

At first, I was going to blame the Jazz’s centers for the cavalcade of interior points the Pelicans got tonight. The Pelicans had 44 shots at the rim tonight. 44! That’s way too many for any team to get.

But upon watching the video, I think most of the time, the perimeter defenders were mostly at fault. If the other team continues to have direct paths to the basket over and over again, the interior defenders just can’t do much against so many 2-on-1s or 1-on-0s.

Now, to be clear, Zion Williamson is special. If you guard him with a center, he’ll move quickly around him. If you guard him with a wing, he’ll bully ball to the rim. The key is to make him change directions, because he can turn the ball over if he has to adjust his momentum.

So something like this, a straight line drive: way too easy. Niang has to do much better there.

Compare that to this: the Jazz get the early show, Williamson has to spin, and Mike Conley’s able to get a terrific steal. As good as he was, Williamson had six turnovers tonight, ones that the Jazz took advantage of late to start a comeback from down 17 points.

But again, Williamson is special. What you can’t do when you’re facing a special player is to let him find success and his teammates. Williamson can have 26, but you can’t let Williamson have 26 and let Ingram have 26 points on 11-20 shooting and let Lonzo Ball have 23 points on 9-16 shooting and let J.J. Redick score 17 points on 5-8 shooting and let Josh Hart score 13 points on 6-7 shooting.

So, like, here, Joe Ingles can’t go for the poke-away — he’s not going to get the ball first if he does, and the Jazz’s defense isn’t about getting turnovers. Donovan Mitchell has to do more than a leaning stunt towards the drive — his presence isn’t scaring anyone. And Derrick Favors is jumping way early here on the drive, too — Ingram’s too long to not just easily get past that one.

“We know what they do. We know they’re No. 1 at getting in the paint. We had all the stats lined up. What they did, we knew it,” Mitchell said after the game. “I think we just didn’t execute it the right way and we were late to certain things — standing there watching straight line drives.”

2. Can’t count on the bailout whistle

Tonight, I thought the Jazz played to the referees too much down the stretch, and it really cost them.

Mitchell had an iffy shooting night overall (7-21 shooting), including just 2-8 in the fourth quarter. I don’t mind Mitchell struggling if he’s under control, but I thought he forced some possessions late. In particular, he gets the switch here on Williamson, then watch slowly: Mitchell sticks his left arm up under Zion’s. Williamson quickly gets his arm out of the cookie jar, and it’s really arguable if any contact occurred or affected Mitchell.

But here’s the truth: referees are also cognizant of whether or not a whistle is going to “bail out” a player. When you’re running this kind of isolation late in a shot clock, driving into a body then bouncing off of it, you’re hoping mostly for a whistle. And in those situations, refs are going to be tighter on what they call a foul. If it seems like you’re just trying to turn a bad situation into the easiest points in the game, they’re going to be skeptical. They’re going to see that arm raise and think they’re trying to be tricked.

Now, I know what you’re going to say: what about James Harden? What about Giannis Antetokounmpo? Those guys have advantages: in particular, God-tier moves. The refs know that Giannis can dunk in a crowd due to his ridiculous length, or that Harden’s step-back is money. Bad situations for any other player can actually be pretty advantageous for them.

Anyway, the same thing happened on the Jazz’s tying possession for three. They screwed up the execution on this one, and in the end, Conley tried to draw a foul. If there’s contact here, it’s debatable, and it’s all created by Conley with his illegal shooting motion.

You’re just not going to get that whistle when you’ve botched everything that’s come before it. Look, if you run a beautiful play, get open, then a defender wildly contests and you draw contact, refs are going to call it one way. When you’re just throwing up the ball and trying to bounce off a defender, the referees are going to see it for what it is: a prayer.

Now, the irony of me talking about this in this particular game is that the referees did bail out the Pelicans late in the contest — in particular, on what I thought was a poor loose-ball-foul call on Gobert when it was just a 1-point game. That was called by Haywoode Workman, who stood outside the 3-point line about 45 feet away from the play. Suffice it to say that I didn’t see what he saw, and Gobert agreed after the game:

“We were one terrible call away from it being a one point game and getting a chance to win,” Gobert said. “We fought hard to come back in the game, you know, but we learn from it. We know that there’s a lot of things that we should have done earlier to not even be in this position.”

So, okay, you sometimes can get bailed out on a call. You just probably shouldn’t count on it.

3. Some Hack-an-Adams late in the game!

Speaking of some foul-related malarkey, I loved what Snyder did to get back into this one. With the Jazz’s comeback rolling with 1:28 to go and the Pelicans lead down to five, Snyder did a smart thing: he had Mitchell intentionally foul Steven Adams, who is shooting just 45% for the year from the free-throw line, as soon as he touched the ball.

Remember, that’s the rule: in the game’s final two minutes, you can’t foul someone off the ball intentionally, or else it’s free-throws plus possession. But once they’re involved in the play, they’re fair game.

Adams made one of two, but the possession meant that there was much more time on the clock for the Jazz to score next, which they did from the free-throw line.

So next possession, Ingram dribbles the ball up the court, and the Jazz are listening for Snyder’s signal: to foul or not to foul? It’s not clear what the Jazz decided to do, because Adams started to run up to set a screen, but then stopped short — probably worried that if he was involved in the play, the Jazz would foul him! In the end, the Pelicans, confused, ran this terrible Ingram isolation play that resulted in a miss, chaos, and Royce O’Neale burying a transition three to cut the lead to one.

That’s two benefits to the hack-a strategy: not only can you stop the clock and make a bad shooter shoot free-throws, you can also disrupt a team’s offensive rhythm by keeping their center out of screening roles. It’s a smart call by Snyder, and with an extra bucket, or a different call, it could have meant the Jazz sneaking out of New Orleans with a win they probably didn’t deserve.

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