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The Triple Team: Utah Jazz struggle in first preseason game What do they have to work on and what is just rust?

Plus: A look at rookie guard Jared Butler’s performance against the San Antonio Spurs

San Antonio Spurs' Doug McDermott, right, drives against Utah Jazz's Donovan Mitchell (45) and Mike Conley during the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game on Monday, Oct. 4, 2021, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)

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The Triple Team! 3 thoughts on the Jazz’s 111-85 loss to the San Antonio Spurs from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Mitchell and Snyder on why the Jazz lost tonight

It’s the very first Triple Team of a new season, and, unfortunately, it seems as if no video clips exist of this game, thanks to the Spurs’ and Jazz’s decision not to televise the contest. I sat in the second row in San Antonio, but can’t just upload my memory banks, unfortunately.

So we’ll go a little bit old school tonight: we’ll use words to describe the game. A writer, using words? The horror! But in particular, I want to begin with the words of the team’s leaders: Quin Snyder and Donovan Mitchell. Are these issues that are likely to impact the team in the regular season, or just issues that are just due to first game rust?

Issue No. 1: poor communication

Snyder: “Give the Spurs credit. You know, I thought their movement off the ball had an impact. We needed to communicate better to guard some of that — some of the cutting, some of the late switching situations, particularly in pick and roll.”

Ah, poor communication — a hallmark of regular season Jazz teams when struggling to defend, too. But this year’s team also has some new players, and perhaps new players aren’t as comfortable in communicating in Snyder’s preferred way yet. So I think it’s fair to say both are at play: communication will be key in the regular season, but also is likely to improve in the next few weeks.

Issue No. 2: Not running the floor

Snyder: “When we did defensive rebound, we weren’t able to get down the court and, you know, get some easy looks. And I think that showed.”

The Jazz had just two fast-break points in the first half tonight, when the good players were playing. I think it’s pretty clear that that’s a classic sign of preseason rust, and that they’ll run faster when they’re more motivated (and more in shape) in the regular season.

Issue No. 3: Spacing

Snyder: “I didn’t think we were as sharp as we needed to be, particularly with our spacing. So much of what we do depends on the precision of our spacing. You guys have heard that from me for a while — and the reason I say it is because it’s true.”

Not having your two best shooters on the court in Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles is going to impact spacing. Not having your best roll man in Rudy Gobert, who creates opportunities for shooters, is going to impact spacing. And having a bunch of guys who don’t really know where to stand yet (Udoka Azubuike, Elijah Hughes, Hassan Whiteside, Eric Paschall, Jared Butler, and so on) is going to impact your spacing. I think this should get resolved pretty quickly during the regular season.

Issue No. 4: Offense tweaks

Mitchell:We tweaked a bunch of things in our offense.... Well, I wouldn’t say a bunch of things, a few things. I think it’s just being able to think instinctively.”

Ah, something for us to dig into more later! Still, an indication that there are new things to learn in training camp even for those who have been on the team for years — and a learning process that will likely take some time. Now, will that be weeks (and it’ll be ready to go by the regular season) or months? We don’t know yet.

Issue No. 5: Shooting

Mitchell: “We shot 30 percent. [31.7%, to be exact.] I went 5-19. We didn’t make shots. You know, that happens.”

Yep, officially not worried about this. I thought Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson and Mitchell generally looked exactly like themselves, but their shots didn’t go in. That will happen sometimes during the regular season too. If they all have bad games at the same time, the Jazz will likely lose that game. It’s only fair to be disappointed in that if you expect them to go 82-0.

All-in-all, I’m not that worried about tonight’s performance for the Jazz. Yes, they got boat-raced by an iffy Spurs group, but it’s preseason. They mostly fell short in the ways you’d expect them to fall short.

2. I like Jared Butler

Rookie Jared Butler was the Jazz’s leading scorer on the night, scoring 16 points in 20 minutes. It wasn’t all roses, as it took him 15 shots to score those 16 points — he had six makes and nine misses.

But I continue to like his intersection of two NBA skills: elite ballhandling ability, and terrific shooting. Butler showed that he could get anywhere on the floor he wanted, with a good handle that fools even long, tough point guard defenders like the Spurs’. And while he wasn’t efficient in this particular game, his college number say that he should make more of his shots from mid-range and distance go in moving forward.

The most discouraging plays came when Butler entered the paint and found the defense collapsing on him. He might have been used to beating his man and getting a layup at the college level, but NBA-level help rotation defense meant that he found himself being blocked by the Spurs’ big men. Mitchell, who has taken Butler under his wing a little bit early in camp, had some advice:

“He’ll get better at finishes and getting angles. On the ones, he’s getting blocked, obviously he’s not the tallest, so he has to do it a certain way — similar to my finishes, where I’m going a little bit wider as opposed to going right at the big because he’s seven feet.”

Going wider for layups also has the effect of making the big man come further out to try to block the shot, leaving space open for lobs and passes to the corner three. That’s something that Butler has to do more: look to assist others. Right now, he’s score-first and pass-third. When the defense is collapsing, he has to know his outlet option.

Butler, by the way, said he gave his first performance a “C.” “Six out of 10,” he said.

“It’s just the way the dice rolls, the way the cookie crumbles. I don’t know. I’m giving myself a six.”

3. The backup centers struggled

Hassan Whiteside has some way to go to understand Quin Snyder’s system. Udoka Azubuike has so, so far to go.

We’ll start with Whiteside first. It was interesting to hear Whiteside talk about the Jazz’s system as foreign to him, given how heavily it pushes offenses to avoid the rim and take midrange shots. But too frequently, Whiteside found a poor balance: essentially, he both left shooters open to shoot and didn’t get to the glass to rebound or block shots.

Whiteside said he’s still learning that, and it’s certainly fair to give him some time to adjust to a new scheme. It’s also fair to note that defensive positioning has been a weakness of Whiteside’s in his career, and so the Jazz’s hope is that Snyder will prove a more effective teacher than his previous coaches — or at least a good enough one that Whiteside is a competent backup center.

As for Azubuike... I don’t think he’s NBA playable right now. On the very first play of his game after Azubuike checked in, Mitchell had to point to a spot on the floor for Azubuike to go on offense, which cost the Jazz about five seconds and short-circuited the play. On the very next defensive play, he lost track of Eubanks for a three.

If it was just that one sequence, fine. But honestly, it was nearly every sequence in which Azubuike found himself out of position: going strong side when he should hang out in on the weak-side near the hoop. Screening inconsistently. Calling for a lob on every play. Weirdly getting outmuscled on the defensive end and on the boards. It was, at times, even discouraging for his teammates.

I like ‘Dok! But he’s a one-man show right now, not an asset to a five-man lineup. If Gobert or Whiteside get hurt, I’d bet Paschall or Rudy Gay see the five spot in significant minutes over Azubuike this season.

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