After the Utah Jazz fended off the Kings on Saturday night, everyone expressed some measure of relief that the team did not have to once again learn its lessons the hard way.
And yet, they also acknowledged, there remain plenty of lessons still to learn.
“Now we can go back and look [at film] and fix little things that we’ll see and go from there,” said Donovan Mitchell.
To his point, there are plenty of those little things that have proved problematic in Utah’s past week of games. Here’s a look at some of the areas the Jazz have conceded could be better.
Transition defense and communication
This has been arguably the team’s biggest problem all season long. And it was a big problem again against the Kings. Too often, when running back to defend a fast break, Jazz players are overly committed to finding and defending the guy they’re typically assigned to, when they should be “cross-matching” — locating the guy who is the biggest threat in that moment and guarding him, regardless of positional assignment.
The biggest issue, per coach Quin Snyder, is that Jazz players simply are not talking to each other enough, thus negating the chance to make split-second adjustments.
“It’s not enough just to be back when someone’s running the ball,” he said, “you’ve got to be back and talking because you may not have a matchup in transition.”
Beyond the communication, Mitchell added that sometimes it’s a simple function of recognizing that opponents will do whatever they can to avoid facing Utah’s halfcourt defense, and the Jazz must put in the requisite effort to blow up their fast breaks.
“We’ve got to understand that’s what teams want to do — just like we want to run, teams want the run [on us],” Mitchell said. “And we’ve got to make it an emphasis to talk, not [only] run back to our man, not jog. It takes mental effort.”
Facing the switch
Perhaps the second-most consistent problem area for the Jazz this season is how they attack defenses that simply switch defenders on pick-and-roll plays. With fewer slow-footed big men out there now, and more similarly sized guards and wings, there’s less potential for defenders to be taken off the dribble in bad matchups, more capacity for them to stay with their new primary assignment. And the Jazz have largely struggled against such situations.
“What was unique tonight about Sacramento is they switched 1 through 5, and so we needed to find new ways to get our so-called ‘blender’ going and get their guys in rotation,” noted forward Georges Niang.
And, fortuitously for the Jazz they believe they worked out some viable options for attacking it.
“As the game went on, we got better and better and more comfortable offensively with the switching defense,” said Joe Ingles. “I think we kinda figured some things out tonight that we probably haven’t [before]. I think we played better against the switching defense tonight than we have in a few other games this year.”
Partly because of all the switching they’ve been facing, recent games have featured an inordinate amount of isolation offense by the Jazz. There might be an initial play run, but if the opposing team switches and shuts it down, the secondary action frequently has devolved into someone going iso — typically Mitchell or Jordan Clarkson, but sometimes Mike Conley or Bojan Bogdanovic.
It wasn’t really until very deep into the Sacramento game that the blender got whirring at peak efficiency. The biggest problem, they’ve all acknowledged, is not enough passing. If players are constantly on the move, and the ball is skipping from one place to the next, forcing rotations — quick decision-making is key, Snyder reiterated — then more open shots will be the natural end result.
“The more we move the ball, the more those opportunities are going to present themselves,” Snyder said. “And that’s why our ball movement is so important, because it involves everybody.”
Hitting 36% from 3 on Saturday still technically represents a poor shooting night for this team. But considering they hit 12 of 42 vs. the Blazers (28.6%), 11 of 44 against the Suns (35%), and 12 of 44 (27.3%) vs. the Mavericks, well, 18 of 50 against the Kings felt pretty brilliant by comparison.
Especially considering that after a lackluster 7-for-24 performance in the first half (29.2%), Utah went a positively encouraging 11 of 26 (42.3%) from deep in the second.
“When it rains, it pours for us,” Niang said.
The sharpshooting forward added that 3.5 games’ worth of not seeing 3s go in was wearing on the team mentally, and that finally breaking through late against Sacramento provided a much-needed spark.
“I wish I had a good one-liner for what it feels like. It just doesn’t feel good — it’s like waking up with a migraine, like, ‘Oh, here we go again,’” he said. “… It sucked not seeing the ball go in, and it also sucked losing. But we also know that that’s how teams are going to guard us, and we’re going to need to make plays in other areas if shots aren’t falling for us to win games.”
Snyder will never use the schedule as an excuse, noting that every team is in the same boat, and there’s nothing they can do about it anyway. And besides, the Jazz are supposed to be facing the most noncompetitive slate of the second half of the season.
Thing is, they’re also traveling the most. And the condensed amount of games per week is starting to make itself felt.
The Dallas-Phoenix-Portland matchups presented three games in four days. The Kings matchup Saturday marked the beginning of another three-in-four stretch, with the Wizards coming on Monday and the Thunder on Tuesday.
Mike Conley, who played in both halves of a back-to-back for the first time in a while, said that such stretches definitely left players feeling the effects afterward.
“You’re stacking all these games one after another, and before you know it, you’ve played 10 in 15, or 20 in 28 nights,” Conley said. “You don’t even realize how much basketball you’ve played, and your body just lets you know by you [getting] a slight pull or something like that, or you’re really sore the next morning, it’s hard to get out of bed, whatever it is. It just hits you kind of quickly and kind of sudden.”
Compounding that tiredness is Clarkson’s injury. While Miye Oni has been filling some of the minutes, his skill set does not make him an adequate 1-for-1 substitute, and so, Mitchell, Conley, and Ingles have seen their minutes bumped, their rotation patterns altered a bit.
The reactionary contingent of Jazz fans who tend toward a “what have you done for me lately?” purview in the extreme suggested that Clarkson’s sprained ankle is a good thing for the team, as he was actively hurting Utah by hunting — and missing — bad shots, that his absence would foist more opportunity upon the typically efficient Ingles.
Needless to say, the Jazz themselves don’t agree with viewpoint. Asked what Clarkson’s absence robs the team of, Niang was blunt: “A barrage of points, just out of nowhere. I think we miss Jordan just for the sense of, he’s a guy that [you can] literally throw the ball to him and he makes something happen — he’s making other teams over-help, drawing two defenders.”
And, indeed, there were moments Saturday night where Utah really appeared to miss Clarkson’s off-the-bounce creativity, his unconventional movements that put defenders in tough positions and create different looks for his teammates. Yes, his shooting has waned of late, but there’s something to be said for being a guy that opposing defenders always perceive and treat as a threat.