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The Triple Team: The difference between how Jazz fans, coaches and players react to 2 losses to the Timberwolves

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Seats are either available or taped off as a limited number of fans prepare to watch the Utah Jazz host the Minnesota Timberwolves, NBA basketball at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 105-104 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. How fans react vs. how players and coaches react

So, look, it wasn’t good. The Jazz lost two games in a row against the Minnesota Timberwolves, a team that hasn’t won two games in a row since their first two games of the season.

And yet, I thought it was fascinating to see how the Jazz responded to the loss.

I watch two games in a row unfold like that and think “Oh, wow, the Jazz have some concerning issues. Royce O’Neale is passing up every open shot, Jordan Clarkson’s taking some really bad ones — has he been good enough in the second half of the season? They’re turnover prone. They can’t consistently get Gobert involved. The bench looks poor. Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic couldn’t (on Monday, anyway) hit the broad side of a barn — are they weak against athletic closeouts? D’Angelo Russell had a great game, can the Jazz defend scoring guards???”

And as much as my mind is spinning after games like those two, Jazz fans’ minds are spiraling. “The Jazz are a 5 seed masquerading as a 1 seed!,” one tweet read. “Feeling like a first round exit in the playoffs, they peaked too soon!,” another said. Don’t let me even check Facebook for whatever they’re saying.

And then I asked Quin Snyder about what his level of concern was after the two losses to a dismal Wolves team. And he referenced how proud of his team he was for avoiding the turnovers that led to the loss on Saturday, and how they kept shooting the ball in the fourth quarter to make a comeback, and how the rebounding had improved.

“I think for us to put ourselves in this situation, this isn’t a moral victory, but this is... specific to how I think our team, the mentality that we have to have in order to be successful,” he said. “I’d be concerned if we didn’t compete, and I would like to have executed better on the last two possessions.

“But this entire season is about getting better. And if games like this can help you get better, you obviously would rather win, but that’s been what we’ve been trying to do the whole season.” In short, it’s not like he was thrilled, but he liked his team’s approach.

And then Rudy Gobert was asked about what his level of concern was.

“None. I think I would be concerned if we were giving up 140 points or something like that, like we did probably one time this year. Every team has some tough games... Tonight, if I don’t **** up the last play defensively, we end up winning the game.”

In short, I think Snyder and Gobert have this shared understanding that can be really tough for fans to tap into. Yes, these last two games didn’t go their way. But the Jazz are building a program here, one built around the 3-ball and being playing stifling defense. Two losses in a weekend doesn’t distract them from that larger picture.

Now I think the counter-argument to that thinking is essentially: okay, sure, you want to be good at basketball over the long run. But at some point, you just need to be able to slam the door and say “we’re not losing to the Minnesota Timberwolves twice in a row, no matter what, because we’re the best team in the league, insert-expletive-here.” Perhaps a long-term focus can distract from the urgency maybe needed to win an individual contest — a useful skill in the playoffs.

And that, obviously, is where Donovan Mitchell comes in — he does have that “nope, not on my watch” mentality. The Jazz miss that when he’s hurt.

It’s all a fascinating balance for the Jazz: is this a “getting better” season, still? Or is this a “we can and will win it all” season? How much does that first goal service the second? And how much does it mean, in the end, when you lose to the Minnesota Timberwolves twice in a row?

2. Some rotation changes

Rotation changes have been always notable for the Jazz this season just because there have been so few of them — it really is probably only a handful of times over these 60 games that you could point at a change not made for injury reasons.

But tonight, I thought there were a few worth noting:

• Ersan Ilyasova got Miye Oni’s bench minutes, essentially playing the power forward slot, which slid Georges Niang to the three.

I think Oni, after some bright moments to start the season, hasn’t really proved himself to be rotation worthy. I mean, not that we should really be using PER in the year 2021... but he has a 6.0 PER. He essentially has Royce O’Neale usage but without O’Neale’s prodigious rebounds and passing lubrication skills. Oni’s frequently a solid defender, but he’s proven to be foul-prone too — his style of defense sometimes reminds me of Dante Exum’s in that it looks impressive, but referees are noticing some extra handsiness and not giving him the benefit of the doubt on it.

The Ilyasova/Niang minutes worked okay, but not great; the Jazz outscored the Wolves by only one point. It turns out that Ilyasova also did not get the benefit of the doubt from referees, but was knocking down shots on offense.

Overall, I think it’s relatively unlikely Oni plays a significant role in the Jazz’s postseason, which is a little bit of a shame given that it looked like a real possibility earlier in the year.

• Niang played 24 minutes, his highest total of the season. I think it’s pretty clear why: he was hustling on the boards — he had a career high in offensive rebounds tonight, with the vast total of three! — and most importantly, he was an outlet for the Jazz at the 3-point line. He actually was both taking and making a decent number of his 3-point shots. Snyder’s not usually someone who rides a hot hand, but Niang’s approach was what the Jazz needed as they came back in the game. Bogdanovic and Clarkson had their minutes docked somewhat to get Niang his.

• Rudy Gobert played the whole fourth quarter, again. He also did in the Jazz’s loss to the Timberwolves on Saturday, and has been doing that in more of these close games the Jazz are playing. Gobert only played 34:35 for the whole contest, so it’s not like he was overworked overall, but there’s just a huge difference for the Jazz’s ability to do good things on both ends with and without Gobert, and having him out there was a key part of the Jazz’s run. (Of course, Gobert’s screwup at the end was a key part of their downfall, too. But Gobert’s always going to be in the game at the end.)

3. Conley and Rubio, re-visited

I’ve thought back to last season pretty frequently. Remember, there was a lot of buzz about the Jazz being the No. 1 seed in the West after their terrific offseason in 2019, and then they were a pretty big disappointment in finishing sixth. And in some sense, this season, they’ve just fulfilled the destiny of that year, but just a year too late.

Last year’s biggest disappointment was Mike Conley, who didn’t have it figured out at first, then got hurt, then was good but not good enough in the bubble to push the Jazz to a second-round series. Meanwhile, Ricky Rubio looked to have changed the culture in Phoenix — they didn’t make the playoffs, but finished the season 8-0 and gave the Suns the first bit of momentum they’ve had in years.

Rubio got traded in the Chris Paul deal, then swung up to Minnesota. And in the year that’s passed, Conley’s become comfortable in his new home, playing an All-Star season. Rubio almost couldn’t be struggling more in his old home: he’s shooting 37%, the Wolves have been better with him off the floor this season, and it just hasn’t looked like a good fit.

The thing that’s so electrifying about Rubio is still there: no one tries harder on defense, he still has tremendous court vision. But in the end, that he can’t make a shot at an NBA standard just turns out to be devastating to his overall value — he had two points, five rebounds, and four assists tonight in 21 minutes.

Two lessons I’ve taken from the experience:

• First, I think it’s really interesting how you’re never sure how players are going to develop. Jason Kidd, for example, also had a terrible shot in his early days in the NBA, but developed a good one in his career. (Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey famously made the Kidd/Rubio comparison.) I don’t think you can argue that Rubio has — even though, by all accounts, Rubio has the requisite work ethic needed to get better. He just hasn’t.

• Second, I think it goes to show how important a shot is in today’s NBA: if you’re a perimeter player, you just need to have one. If you don’t, teams are too good at scouting, and will use your man to take advantage. Shooting has always been the most important NBA skill, but it’s now nearly impossible to be a pass-first point guard without a killer shot.

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