Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 121-100 loss to the Phoenix Suns from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. The jury must decide
JUDGE: Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I present to you the following case: “Did The Jazz Care If They Beat The Suns?”
We’ll hear arguments from both sides. First, the prosecution.
PROSECUTION: Your Honor, I believe that the Jazz were not trying their hardest to win that game. To prove it to you, I will present the motive, means, and opportunity that the Jazz committed the crime.
First, motive. The Los Angeles Lakers are currently favorites among NBA oddsmakers to win the title this season, and why wouldn’t they be? At this moment in time, it is more likely that they become the fifth seed than the sixth seed. They look highly likely to beat the current No. 4 seed, the Denver Nuggets. And that would mean the defending champions would play the No. 1 seed in the second round. The Toronto Raptors, just two seasons ago, showed how winning a title can be about finding the right timing, and waiting until the conference finals to play the Lakers might give the Jazz a better shot.
DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Objection! Yes, the Lakers still have a chance at the sixth seed: they even lost tonight! The No. 1 seed brings home court advantage to the Jazz in a potential series against the Suns, and that would be useful. Being the No. 1 seed also may bring more confidence and momentum going into the playoffs. The Jazz’s motive to commit the crime is certainly not iron-clad.
JUDGE: Defense, your objection is noted. Prosecution, continue.
PROSECUTION: Second, we have means. We saw several irregular things from the Jazz tonight. Rudy Gobert’s minutes were unexpectedly small: after not playing at the end of the first quarter, he only played 3 minutes in the first stint of the second quarter. He didn’t start the second half — and after not starting, his third quarter stint was also three minutes. If Snyder’s best efforts were on winning this game, his best available player would have played more.
Beyond that, Snyder also played lineups with no real hope at success. Trent Forrest and Jarrell Brantley on the court at the same time? Lineups with Ersan Ilyasova and Miye Oni have proven effective in the past, but the former two have been net negatives this season. Snyder chose the latter, knowing that the lack of spacing would allow the Suns to go on a run to seal the game early.
DEFENSE: Objection! Snyder said Gobert had to use the bathroom to begin the second half, and Gobert’s on-court time wasn’t exactly sterling, either. And with Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell out, the Jazz have had to play fringe bench players — their guard depth is highly limited on the roster, and that’s not Quin Snyder’s fault, it’s Dennis Lindsey’s.
JUDGE: The bathroom excuse is highly unusual, but indeed plausible. Again, defense, your objection is noted. Prosecution, continue.
PROSECUTION: Finally, opportunity. The efforts occurred because they had to occur tonight. If the Jazz had won this game, they would have had a two game lead in the Western Conference. Even if they rested players in future games against the likes of the Rockets, Thunder, and Kings, they may well still have won those games. Losing tonight, oddly, may preserve the ability to choose whether the No. 1 or No. 2 seed will be better later in the year.
DEFENSE: Objection! The Jazz still have matchups against the Spurs, Nuggets, and Warriors left. If they want to lose those, they almost certainly could.
PROSECUTION: But sir, did you not notice Mike Conley’s “The Sky Is Falling” T-shirt at the game? Even he was in on the joke, knowing the reaction among Jazz fans to the upcoming loss. And Snyder using a bathroom break as an excuse? After halftime? Come on! The joke is on us, the public!
DEFENSE: But then why did Gobert call the contest a “test” and a “missed opportunity” after the game? If Conley knew the Jazz weren’t going to win, wouldn’t Gobert have known too, and downplayed the loss?
PROSECUTION: That’s exactly what you’d want to say if you wanted to hide the ruse!
DEFENSE: It’s also what you’d say if you were innocent of the crime!
JUDGE: Order, order! Even this, which was already a highly unusual format for a trial, is getting out of hand!
Ultimately, the evidence is shaky, but I’m still willing to listen. Let’s declare a 24-hour recess, by then, we may well have more evidence from tomorrow’s decision in the Jazz v. Raptors case. For now, court is adjourned.
2. Jordan Clarkson’s not getting separation
One reason why I thought that the Jazz were going to be better than this in the absence of Donovan Mitchell is the presence of Jordan Clarkson as a proto-Mitchell: his ability to score might replace some of what Mitchell has to offer, after all, he also can score at all three levels like Mitchell, right?
Well, that may have been optimistic. In particular, Clarkson has really struggled at getting separation from his defenders in recent games, even when it seems like he really should. Some of it is a lack of first-step burst, and some of it is that he’s made some poor decisions even when he does have a step on the defender.
First, let’s look at the burst. Cam Payne is a decent defender, so this isn’t an easy bucket. But despite the crossovers and the twists, Clarkson’s never able to get unstuck from Payne. Where this turnaround push shot was open for Clarkson earlier in the year, defenders are doing more to prevent it now by getting in his airspace.
I also think his pick-and-roll decision making has gotten weird. Check this play out.
So he uses the screen really well, and the Suns’ Dario Saric is playing him high. That means that he should keep Saric attached to him, and wait for Favors to roll to the rim and deliver the ball — or back Saric out and take him one-on-one.
What does he do instead? He spins back towards Cam Johnson, who is happy that the step he lost has actually been given back. And then Clarkson completes the anti-swindle by taking a tough fadeaway floater from the baseline, a very difficult shot.
Look, this isn’t about the absence of Conley and Mitchell: Clarkson still ran pick and roll with those guys on the floor, the caliber of defender on Clarkson wouldn’t be any less if they were out there. This is about Clarkson misreading situations and turning lemonade into lemons.
I don’t know what’s changed, and I don’t know why, but it’s troubling. With Clarkson at his best, the Jazz are dangerous. When he’s at his worst, it’s detrimental to the cause. I can live with the 3-point shooting variance, no biggie. The bad shot taking? It’s harder to swallow.
3. Figure out how to defend pick and roll
So a lot has been made about whether or not the Jazz can defend the Suns from the midrange, and rightfully so: the Suns are the league’s best mid-range team, but those are the shots the Jazz typically prefer to give up, while stopping the 3-ball and rim attempts. Tonight, they chose option D), none of the above, but hey.
But theoretically, in a playoff series, they’ll need to at least contest the mid-range shots more than they did. Most of those midrange shots come in pick-and-roll with Devin Booker or Chris Paul, and so defenders will need to stay relatively attached to those guys while Gobert protects the paint.
This kind of in-between approach, where Royce O’Neale dies on the screen, but Gobert doesn’t really contest enough, just won’t work.
Neither will this, where O’Neale is this far behind. He has to move his feet, or if he’s not going to, Gobert, again, has to contest.
And, look, going under is a strategy. But you can’t go under and then die on the re-screen this badly.
These are the same problems the Jazz faced against Jamal Murray in the Nuggets series last year: they couldn’t stop Murray from getting any shot he wanted. What will they do differently this year?