Much as Utah Jazz fans are losing it over their team getting swept this season by the Phoenix Suns and falling into second place in the Western Conference standings, the truth is that unless Chris Paul & Co. suddenly started playing defense like the Sacramento Kings, Friday’s game was always going to be a difficult proposition.
Needless to say, the Suns did not suddenly, inexplicably fall apart, the Jazz suffered through their third abysmal first quarter in as many tries against Phoenix this year, and Utah ultimately fell 121-100.
With the loss, Utah finished 0-3 against Phoenix this season, and dropped to 45-18 on the season. The two teams now have identical records, but with Phoenix having the head-to-head advantage, the Jazz technically occupy the second spot in the Western table.
All of which is sub-ideal, but — again — perhaps not all that surprising, especially considering that Donovan Mitchell missed his seventh consecutive game with an ankle injury while Mike Conley sat out his second straight with a sore hamstring.
“Obviously, we didn’t execute the way that we wanted to. I think in a game like this, when certain players are not able to play, your margin for error is really small,” coach Quin Snyder said, elaborating that early turnovers by the Jazz led to early transition for Phoenix, putting Utah in a hole it never could climb out of.
Except that All-Star center Rudy Gobert went off when asked if any or all of the loss, the sweep, the fall to second, et cetera were important, or if this was merely another 1 of 72 games.
“I would say I think it was a great test for us, and I thought it was a great opportunity for us to try to get a win, obviously, but [also] to measure ourself, and see the way we could play, the level of focus we could have, the intensity that we could have, the physicality, the communication — the things that a winning team is supposed to have. And we started the game without any of that,” Gobert said. “So it became a frustrating night for us. I don’t think we took it as seriously as we should as a team. It didn’t feel that way. I think the coaching staff were really focused. And we as a team, I just feel like, all of us, we just all were like, ‘Oh, if we lose, it’s OK, because we’re missing some guys.’ We need to change that mindset.”
To be fair, a couple of his teammates disagreed with his accusation that some on the team took the game lightly.
“Every game means a lot for us. We are fighting for something right now. So I think that every single player played pretty serious tonight,” said Bojan Bogdanovic.
“I don’t know where he’s getting to the point where he says what he said,” added Jordan Clarkson, “but I don’t think that was in anybody’s brain.”
Maybe. Maybe not. You could argue there were signs …
Snyder gave first-half rotation minutes to each of Trent Forrest, Jarrell Brantley, and Ersan Ilyasova.
Gobert was not among the starters on the court when the third quarter began (”He was in the bathroom,” Snyder explained sheepishly afterward), and while the center eventually did go back out there, he played a mere 3 minutes in that period, and about that much in the fourth before coming out for good.
Did Snyder figure the game was pretty much unwinnable — especially the way his team fell apart early — and simply pull the plug? Or are the Jazz repeating last season’s late-year swoon in a bid to again avoid an unfavorable first-round playoff matchup (this time the Lakers)?
Maybe he just figured he’d save everyone’s legs for Saturday’s game, in what figures to be an easier game against the Raptors at Vivint Arena?
It’s probably too early to say definitively.
Unless, of course, you’re one of those aforementioned fans now in the throes of either crippling doubt or raging resignation about the club’s ultimate fate, owing to its relegation from first to second place and the accompanying and apparently irrecoverable loss of home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
What is unquestionably apparent is that the Jazz are no closer to solving the Suns’ stifling defense.
Three of Phoenix’s best defensive efforts this season have now come against Utah. Snyder was asked pregame what it is the Suns do that’s so effective in slowing the Jazz down.
“There are some very specific things that they do in the halfcourt. Without getting too detailed, they — what we call — top-lock us,” he explained. “When the ball goes to our bigs, [DeAndre] Ayton drops to the rim — he’s usually pretty far back anyway — and they try to make it very difficult for us to get the ball back to a ball-handler, and that has a real impact on spacing. I think it also gives them a chance in those situations to be very physical. It ends up with them switching a lot of movement.”
This game, he went on to say, was a chance to see if the Jazz could improve their execution against such a scheme.
Turns out, they could not. With no Mitchell and Conley, Utah’s ball-handling suffered and its paint penetration was all but nonexistent.
Utah shot OK in the first quarter (9 for 20) but got virtually nothing easy, and turned it over five times in falling behind 39-23. They committed 10 first-half turnovers in total, leading to 20 Phoenix points.
The Jazz briefly rallied to within 13 just after halftime, but the comeback was short-lived, and the Suns soo led by as many as 26 points.
Still, it was not lack of effort that killed the Jazz on Friday, Bogdanovic said, but lack of execution.
“We didn’t execute both offensively and defensively,” he said. “It’s tough to play one of the best teams in the league and allow them to have a 20 points after turnovers just in just in the first half.”
Clarkson concurred, noting that Utah’s defense simply wasn’t up to par.
“We didn’t defend well tonight. They scored any time they wanted to,” he said. “They just played well.”
He went on to plead for some perspective, arguing that a simple bad night didn’t need to be made into anything more substantive than that.
“I mean, it’s just another loss,” Clarkson said. “… They still got games to play, we still got games to play. We gotta suit up tomorrow, beat Toronto. … It is what it is — it’s just a loss.”