The Triple Team: Jazz force nearly every basket from midrange for easy math-fueled win vs. Spurs

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Royce O'Neale (23) reaches for the ball as the Utah Jazz host the San Antonio Spurs, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Monday, May 3, 2021.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 110-99 win over the San Antonio Spurs from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Jazz’s defense, Spurs offense sticks only to midrange, to dramatic effect

I love myself some statistical oddities, but this one was one of the best.

For all but 20 seconds of the first half, the Spurs didn’t score one single layup, one single dunk, or one single three. Every single one of their points came from mid-range or the free-throw line. Look at these two shot charts — they’re so different!

Comparing the Spurs and Jazz's shooting charts from the first half tonight. The Spurs took most of their shots from the mid-range areas, getting just one basket from the rim area and zero beyond the 3-point arc. Meanwhile, the Jazz got lots of all kinds of buckets. (NBA.com)

And the Spurs were on fire from midrange, too. Shooting 67% from there for the half, they made way more shots than you’d expect. I didn’t think the Jazz did too bad of a job at contesting those looks. Despite that fact, the Spurs went into the second half down 60-43, because the Jazz had so dramatically out-mathed them. In the end, the Jazz needed that margin after being outscored in the second half, though it never really got close.

After the game, Quin Snyder talked about that being a fine line: you want to encourage shots of a certain type, but you don’t want to just give the opponent open midrange looks, either. But them scoring only 43 points in the half reflects how successful that can be.

And Rudy Gobert raised a good point too: in order to prevent layups, dunks, and threes, one big key is transition defense. When the Jazz get back in transition defense, they can prevent those easy shots — watch how Gobert prevented the Spurs from getting layups here three times:

“When guys get the ball, they think they’re going to have an open layup and all of a sudden they just get blocked, or they see me and they think that it might be better if it they don’t shoot, I think it’s demoralizing,” Gobert said. “And for us, it’s the opposite.”

Finally, we should note that the Spurs were very tired. This game was the second game of a back-to-back, and the Spurs flew from San Antonio last night. Three of their last four games were overtime games. When that’s the case, sometimes settling for the tempting mid-range shot is easier.

No matter the circumstances, it was still a pretty amazing thing to see in 2021, when fully 70% of the league’s shots are from the rim or 3-point range. The Spurs, for so nearly an entire half, had none of them.

2. Rotating the 10th man

It’s been interesting to see who has been getting the other rotation minutes in the last few games, while Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell have been hurt. In every game, Trent Forrest has played, due to the Jazz’s need for a guard. So who gets the other minutes?

• Against Sacramento, Ersan Ilyasova did.

• Against Phoenix, Jarrell Brantley did.

• Against Toronto, Matt Thomas and Ilyasova split them.

• And now against San Antonio, Miye Oni got those minutes.

Oni had been getting those minutes all season long, so it was surprising to see him lose that role. On the other hand, it’s pretty clear what the impetus was: Oni picked up four fouls in the last game in which he played major minutes, the Jazz’s home loss to the Timberwolves. Four fouls in less than 12 minutes puts your team at a major disadvantage.

I asked Snyder after the game what was behind the squad rotation. Was it experimentation, matchups, or what?

“I think it’s more matchup oriented,” Snyder said. “You can go into a game thinking you’re going to play a certain way, and that can change in the second half and it can change with foul trouble. And, it can change if someone comes in and is making shots or making plays.”

I think that approach makes sense. (I don’t think Brantley defending Devin Booker did, but given Oni’s penchant for fouling, maybe Snyder was looking to avoid that.) For what it’s worth, I think Ilyasova and Oni have looked the best in those minutes, but those are very different players, and playing one when the situation calls for the other would be a mistake.

For what it’s worth, Oni earned Snyder’s praise tonight, saying that he did well on the offensive glass and by getting loose balls at key moments of the game.

3. Yellow jerseys are undefeated

Alright, look, I have to at least acknowledge this: the Jazz are undefeated in the yellow jerseys this year.

(The Jazz call them gold jerseys and, well... they’re yellow. Sorry.)

This comes after a dismal record in the yellow last season, in which a pretty good team went just 1-7 in such games. Now, have the Jazz’s matchups in the yellow jerseys been easier than normal? Absolutely. But we have to acknowledge that the jersey is not cursed, as hypothesized last year.

Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey also noted this truth about the jersey record:

Decoding the math notation: it certainly helps all of your team’s various records when the overall record is excellent.

But before you go out and buy a yellow jersey, remember that, because they’re the “Statement” jersey, the Jazz will likely be replacing them next season. Nike schedules a swap out of the Statement jerseys every two seasons, and presumably they’ll return to that schedule this year after COVID-19 protocols delayed the swap this year.

Also, don’t buy the yellow jersey because they’re the least good-looking ones. The Jazz have lots of very good-looking jerseys, at least, in my sartorial opinion. Get those instead.

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