If you thought the Sacramento Kings an unlikely choice to end the Utah Jazz’s extended Vivint Arena winning streak, you’d be right.
And, as it turns out, they didn’t.
But not for the Jazz’s lack of trying. Actually, it was exactly the Jazz’s lack of trying that made it a possibility at all.
Yet more 3-point shooting woes were compounded Saturday night by a defensive effort that could be referred to as lackluster — albeit only if you found yourself in a generous and forgiving mood.
Quin Snyder, for seemingly the umpteenth consecutive time, spent part of his postgame address reinforcing the need for his players to improve their defensive communication in general, and in transition specifically.
“[There were a] couple things we talked about, one of which is transition defense. All the guys know that’s emphasized a lot, emphasized at the beginning of the game. Our communication defensively is crucial,” he said. “We had some guys really throw themselves into the defensive end [late], and when that happens, good things happen.
“… It’s really important for us to set our halfcourt defense,” Snyder added. “Teams know that; this is a smart league, and teams will continue to try to run on us.”
Donovan Mitchell, whose almost-casual 42-point effort made him the first Jazz player since Karl Malone to score 35 or more in three consecutive games, spent more of his own postgame media session addressing the Jazz’s defensive issues in surrendering 18 fast-break points than his own feats of scoring.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a problem. I think it’s something that needs to be addressed. And not necessarily going through it physically in practice — I think the biggest thing is just keeping that in the forefront of our brain. We almost lost this game due to transition,” he said. “… We’ve got to keep that in our brain, because at the end of the day, I wouldn’t want to go against our halfcourt defense, either. We’re pretty good in that realm.”
In the end, Utah prevailed 128-112 because … well, because they unearthed just enough of the habits that have propelled them to an NBA-best 40-13 record, and because the Kings reverted to just enough of the habits that have earned them a six-game losing streak and which have them on track to miss the playoffs for roughly the millionth straight year.
Before that, though …
Richaun Holmes had 21 first-half points on 8-for-8 shooting from the field and 5 for 6 from the line, as he relentlessly went at Rudy Gobert … and prevailed.
De’Aaron Fox was a menace both inside and out — displaying his trademark burst and wicked first step that allowed him to get into the paint and throw down a vicious lefty jam, but also showing off the work he’s put in on the perimeter, as he hit 4 of 7 tries from deep.
Sacramento shot better than 50% from the field for most of the game … Out-shot the Jazz from 3 for most of the game …
But the Jazz got their stuff together in time to win the game.
Gobert seemed to take Holmes’ success personally, and did his best to lock down the paint after the break, holding Holmes to four points on 2-for-5 shooting post-halftime.
“We just had more of a sense of urgency. Once we started making guys miss rather than being there and hoping that they miss, good things happened to us,” said Georges Niang. “I mean, let’s not get this misconstrued — Rudy is the Defensive Player of the Year, and he’s going to get people’s best game every night. So for [Holmes] to have 21 points at the half, and end with 25 … yeah, four points [after halftime]. It’s like, ‘OK, you woke up a monster.’”
The Jazz’s perimeter defense, conversely, was still a bit leaky in the big moments.
After opening the third quarter on an 8-0 run, the Jazz relaxed and surrendered a 14-5 surge of their own.
Early in the fourth, they went up 98-89 and finally seemed poised to put the game away — only to miss four shots and commit a turnover and allow an 8-0 Kings run. Utah did not go ahead to stay until Niang buried one of his four 3-pointers on the night with 5:43 to play.
In the end, the Jazz got just enough stops (Sacramento scored just 47 points in the second half after racking up 65 in the first), made just enough made 3s (18 for 50 on this occasion), did just enough of everything to close on a 24-7 run and pull off their 24th consecutive win at the Viv.
And next time, they’ll try to do better.
“We just found a way to win, you know? It was ugly. We didn’t shoot the ball well. We made a few mistakes defensively — a bunch of mistakes defensively. Offensively, we were kind of stagnant. But the team that we want to be in July wins games like this, perseveres through the struggles, perseveres through whatever,” Mitchell said. “It’s been a long week and we could’ve easily chalked it up when they went up [12-1] and said, ‘It’s not our night.’ But the team we want to be wins a game like this. And we did.”