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The Triple Team: Jazz disappoint defensively, Mitchell reads need work in loss to Wizards

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, right, shoots as Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal, left, defends in the first half during an NBA basketball game Monday, April 12, 2021, in Salt Lake City.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 125-121 loss to the Washington Wizards from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Jazz don’t do work on defense early

NBA players are incredibly efficient when one of two things happen:

1) When they get out in transition with a head of steam

2) When they get to their spots in the half court.

So when you’re defending NBA teams, you have two crucial jobs to do as a simple baseline: get back in transition, and then work as much as you can to prevent them from getting the shots they know best.

As you can expect from this spiel, I didn’t think the Jazz did either of those things tonight. Their defensive rating in transition was 183.3. 183.3! You can’t just let the Wizards score every time they push the ball up the floor. I get that they have Russell Westbrook, who is good at that, and yet: 183.3 is pretty inexcusable.

Transition defense is about effort and communication. There were times when the Jazz didn’t run to get back, or just got beaten down the floor. You can see the difference between Favors’ all-out stride here and his “okay, I think the danger is over” stride... but Daniel Gafford kept running, and got two points.

This is a communication mistake. The Jazz have five back against the Wizards four attacking... and yet, there’s just confusion when Hachimura streaks down the lane, causing open space for one of the most dangerous weapons on the floor in Davis Bertans.

Two possessions later: Bertans has just made another three, and so now the Jazz need to be on red alert. And instead, this miscommunication between Joe Ingles and Miye Oni costs them another three points.

There’s more. There’s easy Robin Lopez hooks, there’s Westbrook layups, there’s Beal threes. But not until the fourth quarter did the Jazz ever make life tough for the Wizards in any meaningful way.

How much is that a problem? Well, they’re not going to face the Wizards in the playoffs. But they are going to face teams capable of running, capable of getting to spots and killing you. The Jazz need to be able to communicate and defend through those situations, and they didn’t do that tonight.

2. Donovan Mitchell, knowing he didn’t read the game very well

Donovan Mitchell scored 42 points tonight — but it took him 41 possessions to do it. Overall, that’s a 102 offensive rating, one of those reminders that a lot of points is not necessarily a terrific offensive night.

He did go on two scorching runs: in the first quarter, when he scored 17 points, and in the fourth, when he scored 21. But between those, he was as cold as cold can be. I don’t mind him shooting, but I do mind him shooting when his teammates are open and have better looks.

Here’s No. 1. Early in the shot clock, penetrating to explore the defense, he eschews two of the best 3-point shooters in the game, Ingles and Bogdanovic, to take a turnaround fadeaway two. This is doing the defense huge favors.

Here’s No. 2. He gets Bertans isolated one-on-one, then bails him out by taking a stepback two. The right play here is to swing it to Royce O’Neale, who can either shoot or then swing it to Bogdanovic in the other corner to take advantage of the man ready to help in the paint. It’s way too early in the shot clock to be doing stuff like this.

Here’s No. 3. Mitchell gets the ball open for a three — probably easiest just to shoot it! — but decides to attack the closeout instead. But when he does, he has two reasonable options here: lob to Gobert, or kickout to Ingles. Instead, he’s met at the rim and gets denied after a tough shot.

I also thought his final-minute decision making was questionable: in the end, I thought he took two quick twos in which the Jazz really only had a good chance to win with a three. That being said, he made the twos and missed the one three he did take in the final seconds, so it’s hard to quibble too much.

There are a bunch more, but in general, it was pretty tunnel-vision Mitchell tonight. That can really hold the Jazz back.

Now here’s the thing I love about Mitchell: he thought so too. After the game, he said he was less frustrated by the missed shots, and more frustrated by the process that got them.

“What I was upset about was the reads. You know, some of our guys were open on shots I took. And that’s what really pissed me off, just because I hold myself to a higher standard in that regard,” Mitchell said. “For me personally, I feel like I let the guys down in that regard. And I feel like I’ve been doing a good job of that this year... you know, I’ll be better.”

It’s been a little bit of a weird week for Mitchell. He’s scored 40 points three times — wow! Except that, among the 85 times players have scored 40 points this season, the three games with the worst shooting percentages have all been Mitchell’s. Two were Jazz losses. He’s putting such a heavy burden on himself offensively, and it can hurt the squad. He needs to do more to get his teammates involved.

3. Rough nights for the replacements

Of course, the subtext for this game was that the Jazz didn’t have either Mike Conley or Jordan Clarkson, two players who could have made a difference — Conley in his ability to control a game and stay attached defensively, and Clarkson in his ability to use possessions.

But their absence gave increased opportunity to three guys: Miye Oni, Trent Forrest, and Matt Thomas. And unfortunately, those guys didn’t really deliver.

The good news with Oni in particular is that he’s played a lot of minutes with the rotation that have gone well, so these 15 minutes won’t change too many opinions on him. But when I watched where the Jazz defensively slipped up, Oni was part of more mistakes than you’d think: communication errors, or not navigating screens very effectively. It remains to be seen whether or not he’ll be an effective defensive player in the playoffs, but it’s certainly not a guarantee.

Nevertheless, Oni was the Subway Sub of the Game thanks to his three points, four assists, and two rebounds. That is discouraging for the other bench players, to be sure.

Forrest... well, he looked out of his depth. One assist, two turnovers, one missed shot in 12 minutes is not a great line, but he didn’t really make an impact defensively. This basket from Ish Smith was just a little too easy, all the way around.

And Thomas missed his only shot, an open three. Cue the “you had one job!” quote. But in all seriousness, if he’s not a strong defender, not rebounding, an adept-but-not elite playmaker, then he has to bend the defense in serious ways with his shot to be worth it. Of course, one shot isn’t success or failure! But he wasn’t the answer.

I don’t want to criticize those guys too strongly, because of small sample size. But the opportunity for a standout performance wasn’t seized, certainly.

It also highlights the Jazz’s absence of activity in the buyout market. I might feel more confident with Ben McLemore in that slot, or Austin Rivers, or even Patrick McCaw or Jeff Teague. The Jazz’s end of bench guys will likely get more playing time as the team seeks to rest players down the stretch before the playoffs, but none of them are capable of handling even an average number of possessions on their own, putting increased miles on the legs of the remaining guys who aren’t resting.

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