Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 154-105 win over the Sacramento Kings from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. 154 points! A new franchise record!
I’ll be honest: I thought there was a decent chance I’d never see the Utah Jazz score 150 points in my lifetime, especially in a non-OT game. They got to 147 in a double-overtime game against the Thunder two years ago, but before that, hadn’t scored more than 140 since a 3OT game against Toronto in 2012. And among non-OT games... well, they hadn’t scored more than 140 since 1990.
Not only did they get to 140, they just added on an extra 14, just for fun.
Even when the Jazz scored 116 points through the first three quarters, I didn’t think they would be able to get close to the record. After all, this year’s deep bench unit has not been very prolific at scoring, with an offensive rating well below 100. To get to 153 points, the franchise record, or even 151 points, the record for the last 42 seasons while the team has been in Utah, that backup unit would need to have their best ever offensive quarter.
But this time, it was different. Buoyed by just a stone-cold awful Kings defense, they easily slithered their way to the hoop for layups, knocked down every shot, and went 8-12 from deep in the quarter. They got it done — credit to Matt Thomas, who scored 17 points in nine minutes, and Jarrell Brantley, who had 13 points in 12 minutes.
Theoretically, I know that things tend to be cyclical, but it’s still been interesting to watch the NBA go from the high-octane ’80s, the physical ’90s, the blah ’00s, then rebuild and rejuvenate offense over the course of the 2010s to what we see now. Players today are just so, so skilled, that even an end-of-bench guy like Thomas has the potential to score 17 points in nine minutes.
Then again, it’s also the highest scoring total by a non-Rockets team in a non-OT game since 2008. So it’s also pretty impressive, even in this scoring context.
It’s also interesting to see how the Jazz did it. I would have expected a 150-point game to come with at least one 30-point performance, or even a player getting to 25. In the other two times the Utah Jazz scored over 150, Adrian Dantley had 42 and 53 points. But the Jazz didn’t do it that way: Bojan Bogdanovic had just 24, Jordan Clarkson had 23, and every other Jazz player was below 20.
Oh, I forgot — they also scored these 154 points without their two best offensive players; Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley both missed the game due to injury. Even without just one of them, they’ve looked offensively stagnant this season.
One of the best things about sports is their ability to surprise and delight. Need an injection of randomness and chaos into your life? Watch some sports. This game wasn’t super important or anything, but out of nothing, we got to see something we’d never seen before. And that’s always worthwhile.
(Luke Walton should honestly be fired tomorrow, though. I mean... yikes, Kings.)
2. Georges Niang’s impressing
Georges Niang followed up a very good performance in Minnesota with a better one tonight. As Conley’s injury moved him into the starting lineup, Niang did everything right, scoring 19 points on only nine shots, never turning the ball over, assisting it four times, while playing some really solid defense.
You know what they say about good shooters, how they open up the floor for the rest of the offense? I think that’s true in Niang’s case, but I also think that more than most >40% 3-point shooters, opposing defenses are liable to leave him open. As defenses rotate to stop Joe Ingles pick and roll from working, or Clarkson from being Clarkson, or Bogdanovic’s forays to the rim, Niang’s defender usually sags in.
And then when the Jazz’s offense finds him, he punishes opponents every time: there’s no more reliable guy at actually shooting the ball than Niang. He’s tall enough that most closeouts don’t seem to really bother him, and the release has gotten quicker, too.
That’s all well and good, but he also is pretty decent at boxing out, though he can’t really jump much to actually get those rebounds — his individual rebounding rates are pretty middling, but the Jazz rebound better with him on the floor than when he’s off, per NBA.com.
And then his defensive efforts this year have been surprising solid, all year long. Again, he’s not the most fleet of foot, but his literal quickness has legitimately upgraded to the point where he’s no longer getting beat at the point of attack. Moe Harkless isn’t the quickest guy in the world, but Niang beats him to the spot, stays big throughout, and then contests the shot and forces an airball.
Really, how often is Niang going to be guarding guys that are way quicker than Harkless, anyway?
It’s going to be interesting to see if he gets an opportunity for a larger role in the playoffs. My biggest playoff worry for the Jazz, beyond health and stuff like “LeBron James might just be too good,” has been, essentially “What if defenses shift off Royce O’Neale, and he’s not aggressive enough to take advantage?” Well, one answer to that question might just be to play Niang: because you know he’s going to fire every time.
Credit to the Jazz’s player development staff and Niang for working hard to make this happen. It certainly wasn’t a guarantee that he was an NBA-caliber player even two years ago, and now he’s in a terrific spot as a very useful role player.
3. Positionless basketball
The Jazz started four forwards and a center tonight.
Joe Ingles played point guard, with O’Neale, Niang, and Bogdanovic around him, and Rudy Gobert at center. The Jazz did end up playing Trent Forrest and Jordan Clarkson later, but saw no need to start the game with them. Heck, at one point, they even ran a Ingles/Bogdanovic/Niang/Ilyasova/Gobert lineup out there.
And you know what? Their size lineups worked really well! Ingles ran the show, Bogdanovic did well as a secondary scoring threat that was able to get inside, Niang made threes, O’Neale passed and shot, and Gobert screened and rolled. It’s not that they out-muscled the Kings, or owned the glass, or any of that, they just outplayed them in exactly the same way a normal starting five would.
Sure, it may well have been the slowest starting five in the league in a footrace. And sure, the unit won’t be in any shoe commercials selling vertical leaps. And despite that, they just outplayed the Kings to smithereens.
Now, the Kings’ lineup wasn’t exactly athletic freaks; they really missed De’Aaron Fox’s contributions tonight. Keeping up with his speed may have been too much for these tortoise Jazz to handle.
But mostly, it’s yet another example of how the NBA has changed. The only Jazz player who has played one position all season long is Rudy Gobert. Other than that, everyone has moved around between a couple of different positions at least, depending on what the team needs.
Rather than creating lineups by counting off positions 1-5, it’s about getting the requisite skills out there. Who is going to create shots? Who is going to knock them down? Who’s going to set the screens? Who’s going to guard the opponent’s best player? And who’s going to get the rebound when he misses? So long as you have sufficient answers to those questions, it’s a quality lineup, no matter the size of the people out there.