Utah Jazz defense is abysmal for three quarters, then brilliant in the fourth, which proves enough

Jazz hold Raptors to 6-for-24 shooting, 13 points in the final period, rallying for a crucial 106-102 victory.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Bojan Bogdanovic (44) takes the ball to the hoop, as Toronto Raptors forward OG Anunoby (3) defends, in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Toronto Raptors at Vivint Arena, on Saturday, May 1, 2021.

Well, any lingering questions about whether the Utah Jazz are trying to win games, or whether players are bothering to give a full effort without Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley got put to rest Saturday night against Toronto.

They were decidedly trying to win. They were definitely playing hard.

And after looking for most of the night like none of that would matter, that they wouldn’t be able to pull it off, Utah improbably, inexplicably, somehow some way managed it.

Jazz 106, Raptors 102.

Cue the huge sigh of relief from all involved.

Any energy potentially garnered from being back in the friendly confines of Vivint Arena playing in front of a season-high 6,700 fans Saturday was more than offset by the simple fact that it was their third game in four nights and the second half of a back-to-back.

Their spirits were willing, but their minds were tired and their legs were heavy.

And so it was that their defense was pretty abysmal for most of the night, and would have been a pretty straightforward culprit in the end result had they lost.

But it was also pretty brilliant in the fourth, and proved a big reason why they won.

“I think we just got better as the game went on,” coach Quin Snyder said. “… We were switching things when we needed to, we were helping each other, we were physical. A lot of things that point to determination.”

Rudy Gobert — the man who pointedly insinuated after Friday’s loss in Phoenix that some players were not quite giving it their all, that they were content to go half-speed knowing the absence of Mitchell and Conley presented a ready-made excuse — liked what he saw when the Jazz rallied back a night later.

“We knew it was going to be a fight and we knew that was going to require some fight and some toughness. We didn’t give up,” he said. “… This one feels good because it was a fight and nothing was given to us. We had to to go get it.”

The offense struggled at times without the All-Star backcourt — not as much off-the-bounce creation, or dribble penetration, not as many advantages gained and open looks generated as when those two play. Still, Bojan Bogdanovic (24 points), Jordan Clarkson (15) and Joe Ingles (15) managed just enough to keep the points coming.

On the other end of the court, though …

Nick Nurse’s small-ball lineup — made even more so by the absences of rotation regulars Kyle Lowry, Chris Boucher, and Gary Trent Jr. — was determined to push the pace in transition and take advantage of Utah’s tiredness, which they did to great effect.

The Jazz wound up committing a whopping 21 turnovers in the game, which the Raptors turned into 29 points. Toronto also had a 13-4 advantage in fast-break points.

Still, Utah struggled to stop anything in the halfcourt either, as Fred VanVleet had repeated success beating his man off the dribble, getting inside, and either drilling shots from the midrange or finding an open teammate once the help arrived.

Toronto shot 12 of 24 in the first period, 12 of 22 in the second, and 12 of 24 again in the third in scoring 33, 29 and 27 points, respectively.

The fourth quarter, however, was a completely different story.

Improbably, rookie two-way guard Trent Forrest — in the game as a warm body capable of doing some minutes-eating ball-handling — began to lock up VanVleet, who suddenly found his forays inside stopped short, his pathways cut off. The high-scoring guard, who torched Utah for 30 points in the game, was 9-for-17 shooting over the first three quarters, but just 2 for 8 in the last period.

The Florida State product had particularly impactful sequence midway through the quarter when he blocked a VanVleet shot on one end, then drilled a corner 3 on the other to give Utah a critical 98-93 lead.

“He is big-time for us,” said Bogdanovic. “Whenever he steps on the court, we get something from him.”

“Trent was amazing — I don’t think we win this game without him,” added Gobert.

“For a young player that has just got thrown into it, he’s got a lot of poise,” Snyder concluded. “The shot that he hit in the corner — you guys know how I feel about that: [if] you’re out there and you’re open, you’ve got to shoot it. … That was obviously a really big shot for our team. It was worth more than three points.”

Forrest’s effort caught on, as the Jazz suddenly had the energy, the legs and the effort.

Toronto made only 3 of its first 20 shots in the final period, and wound up 6 of 24 overall. The Jazz wound up holding the Raptors to just 13 points in the fourth.

And with that, Utah had a crucial win — one that bumped their record to 46-18 on the season, that kicked off a big five-game homestand on a positive note, and that allowed a fatigued team to come away feeling good.

“Even though we were tired, we played through it. It was a physical game — those guys were playing very physical on us — and instead of breaking down and breaking apart, we came together,” said Gobert. “Our physicality, our focus, our connectedness, just went up every single quarter.”

Asked what he and his teammates had left in the tank as play started to deteriorate deep in the fourth, the Frenchman smiled and cracked a dad-joke.

“Pretty empty — gotta go to the gas station tomorrow.”

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