The Triple Team: Jazz aren’t trying their hardest on defense, and it certainly shows in loss to Wizards

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) goes to the basket against Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal (3) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Thursday, March 18, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Three thoughts on the Jazz’s 131-122 loss to the Washington Wizards from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Woeful perimeter defense from the Jazz

I thought there was a play from Donovan Mitchell with a few minutes left in this game that summed this one up. The Jazz had fought hard — and especially Mitchell, who finished with 42 points — to come back with some electric offensive play. But when push came to shove, they seemed mostly disinterested in getting defensive stops.

Watch the Jazz’s star guard on this play.

Maybe you can argue that Mitchell was anticipating the screen? But given that you always go under on Westbrook’s screens anyway, there’s no reason to start leaning in that direction. Mitchell just wasn’t particularly focused, and simply gave up on the defensive assignment.

I’m not trying to pick on Mitchell here — he was not the only bad Jazz defender. Look at the urgency Jordan Clarkson applies here to getting around this screen, guarding Bradley Beal, who had only scored 31 points at this point.

You just have to try harder than that. I guess it’s probably a zone defense? But one of those guys is Beal, the leading scorer in the NBA. Staying aware of his moves is important, certainly more so than staying attached to Robin Lopez up top.

But that’s the problem: it doesn’t seem like defense is important to the Jazz right now. Rudy Gobert said this after the game: “We are not tough enough. We don’t embrace a defensive mindset. We do it when we get down, but we always have to get punched first.”

Well, I don’t know that they even did it after they got down: allowing 67 points in the second half isn’t anything to be proud of, either.

“We’re not going to get anywhere if we just try to outscore people,” Mitchell said. “In the playoffs, if we can’t guard, we’re not going to really do much. So we’re going to take more pride in that and go from there.”

They get a chance to show that pride on Friday against the Raptors.

2. I’m worried about the Jazz’s defense after missed shots

So, an underrated part of the Jazz’s early-season success was also their ability to get offensive rebounds: they were the second-best offensive-rebounding team in the league.

A lot of it was Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert being physical on the glass, but the Jazz were also getting a lot of offensive rebounds by crashing the glass maybe more than another team would. In particular, the guy stationed in the corner — Royce O’Neale, Miye Oni, Jordan Clarkson, or Conley — would try to sneak up into the rebounding havoc and get the loose ball. Go look up the stats: all four of those guys are having the best offensive rebounding seasons of their careers, and it’s due to this strategic change.

The reason most teams don’t do this is that it can lead to fast-break opportunities on the other end after those missed shots. Like, here tonight: Royce O’Neale goes after this rebound, and as a result, never gets back in the play defensively. It’s two easy points for the Wizards.

But early on in the year, the Jazz were able to do this without much of a cost in transition defense: through the season’s first two months, the Jazz only gave up 0.7 points per 100 possessions in total more than normal after missed shots. (All of these stats in this section are from CleaningTheGlass.com, by the way.)

About 0.7 points in a game? You can easily make that up with an extra offensive rebound per game. Once you get two, you’re a net positive.

Well, the story has changed over the last few weeks. As you know, the Jazz have lost four of their last six games. Their performances against transition in the last six games:

• Tonight, the Jazz allowed 9.7 extra points from the Wizards’ transition opportunities after missed baskets. Remember this isn’t after bad turnovers... this is after run-of-the-mill missed shots.

• Against the Celtics, they only allowed 0.9 points extra.

• In the loss to Golden State, they allowed 6.4 points extra.

• In the sketchy win to the Rockets, they allowed 4.5 points extra.

• Against the Sixers, actually allowed 0.6 points fewer than normal.

• In the loss to New Orleans, they allowed 8.0 points extra.

I see a pretty clear correlation: when the Jazz play well — the Celtics win and even the Sixers overtime loss were clear examples, as well as basically the entire season before that — the Jazz defend in transition. When they don’t defend in transition, giving up buckets of points to the other team, well, it’s hugely damaging.

In the last month, they’ve given up more transition opportunities on missed shots than any other team in the NBA.

Can they fix it? I think the early season success shows that the offensive rebounding strategy can work. But it depends on everyone else busting their buns to get back, fouling in transition when necessary, and not getting stuck under the rim or falling after tough forays to the basket. Right now, this Jazz team isn’t showing the effort to do that, and it hurts significantly.

3. Mike Conley is really important to the Jazz’s offense

Once again, the Jazz had an unacceptable number of turnovers in the first half: 12. Both Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson had three in the first half, and in some pretty ugly ways, the kind of decision-making turnovers that you frown upon.

Furthermore, it really seemed like they started to compound: the frustration of one turnover leading to both Mitchell and Clarkson forcing the issue, which meant more turnovers, and so on, until all of a sudden your team is down by 20 in the first half to the 13th-ranked team in the Eastern Conference.

Tonight, Joe Ingles was able to operate as essentially the Jazz’s most in-control ball-handler, and in fact, the Jazz actually outscored the Wizards when he was on the floor. But with him out, they lacked someone to just take control of a situation and revert to good habits.

It was a game that was screaming out for Mike Conley, to be honest, who missed the game due to hamstring injury management. The Jazz are going to be really careful with that, and have been sitting him on one end of back-to-backs this season.

Conley, though, can provide that offensive stability whenever he’s in the game. Conley’s great at making the right decision nearly always, while getting others involved in the offense. If Clarkson or Mitchell are struggling, they can essentially hand the ball over to Conley and say “Hey, All-Star, run this possession for a while,” and he turns up with something good. He’s the steady force behind the Jazz’s offensive success.

I think that was missed a little bit when the Jazz had success with Conley out of the lineup during the first hamstring injury this season — the Jazz went 6-0 during those games, so clearly the Jazz can succeed without him, right? But back then, Mitchell was rolling, Bogdanovic was playing great, Clarkson was on a weeks-long hot-streak, and everything was just very easy for the Jazz.

But when things get tough, Conley can right the ship a little bit. That he wasn’t there tonight hurt the Jazz.