Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 124-120 win over the Milwaukee Bucks from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. Lessons from winning a championship
Before today’s game, we got the chance to interview Mike Budenholzer, who is, of course, now the head coach of an NBA champion. It took the Bucks significant failures to reach the mountain top — they crashed out in pretty spectacular fashion to the Raptors, then the Heat, even after being the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed.
Hey, the Jazz have recently crashed out in spectacular fashion! Could they learn anything from the Bucks’ process?
“When you’re trying to figure out how to to be the last one standing, you got to have some versatility. Most likely, unless you’re just clearly have the most talent — there’s some teams that probably just can can do it one way. But I think we found that versatility was important to us,” Budenholzer said.
“And these guys may be, you know, trying to find some of that where they can do things differently offensively, defensively. They’ve been one of the best teams in the league and I’m sure they’ll continue to be and Quin’s an amazing coach. And so I’m sure they’ll be pushing the envelope this year.”
We saw how the Jazz tried some zone tonight, we’ve seen them try some switching in recent games. We’ve seen some tweaks to the offense, too. Now, the Jazz aren’t that similar to the Bucks: they don’t have an MVP in Giannis, they don’t have a bunch of switchy 6-6 to 6-8 guys. Their “versatility” may be different than Utah’s, but I think the Jazz will need to figure out their other ways to play.
I asked Donovan Mitchell the same thing: what did he learn from the Bucks’ title?
“You watch how guys star in their exact role. You watch how guys are willing to do things for the sake of winning. The way they speak to each other, the way they go out there on the court, the way they talk about things. You feel they’ve been on their journey,” Mitchell said. “I think that’s what this year is about: communicating with each other, understanding each other.”
That was lacking as the Jazz collapsed in one week last season. Can they do it when the going gets tough this year? We’ll see.
2. Jordan Clarkson pushing like crazy
I loved the way Jordan Clarkson played tonight: pushing the ball almost like Russell Westbrook does, or John Wall did in his peak. The idea is that if you can get the defense on their heels, you can get open trips to the lane, mismatches, open shooters, and more.
What’s cool is that you don’t really even have to have a numerical advantage in order to cause huge problems. On this play, the Bucks have all five men back. Clarkson realizes simply that Brook Lopez is close as he’s running down the court, so he attacks him in particular. Lopez has a choice: guard Clarkson, or don’t, and give him an open lane to the rim.
But now Clarkson has a matchup he can cook pretty easily, and he just rises and fires an open 3-point shot. It goes in. It’s good offense through sheer aggression.
Here’s another one: Clarkson has a 4-on-4, which isn’t much. The trailer, Rodney Hood, successfully communicates that he needs help on his guy. The Bucks rotate out the way they should. It’s just that Lopez is just slightly slow to rotate out after covering the paint (which, again, he needed to do) and so Eric Paschall takes the open corner three. He makes it.
I asked Clarkson about this after the game. Interestingly, he said that the biggest reason he was pushing so hard was to show Jared Butler just how important it is, and how easily it can create advantage situations for the Jazz.
“Crossing half court between 20-23 (seconds left on the shot clock), we’re good. We’ve got enough options to figure out, even if the play is broken or whatever,” Clarkson said. “Man, I’m doing it. If I’m speaking on it, I think everybody has got to follow as well. I can’t speak on something that I’m not doing.”
Transition firepower was a big part of the Jazz’s success tonight, just as it was last season. For Butler to integrate well, he’ll need to embrace it. (And props to Clarkson for pushing the pushing policy.)
3. Jared Butler’s handle
One thing I struggle to evaluate in college prospects is ballhandling ability. Obviously, it’s pretty easy to tell the very good ballhandlers from the average to bad ones. But there are also a lot of elite college ballhandlers that find that NBA defenders are smarter, longer and quicker — essentially, that their stuff doesn’t work anymore. Trey Burke was kind of that, for example.
Jared Butler’s ballhandling, at least in preseason, is translating in a big way. Khris Middleton is a fantastic defender, even against quickness, and Butler gets a step on him here, forces the rotation, and makes a beautiful feed to Hassan Whiteside.
George Hill is incredibly savvy as a defender. But Butler sets him up perfectly: he’s staring at ‘Dok’s screen the whole play, until wham crossover, drive the paint, and dunk.
Okay, this video isn’t even ballhandling, it’s passing. It doesn’t belong in this section. I’m cheating entirely to put it here.
Butler has Dok at the rim, and again, stares him down the whole time, while throwing a no-look pass to the corner. Watch this video slowly. Even after the pass is made, Hill takes an additional step towards the paint, rather than the direction the ball is going. That’s craft.
Maybe the secret ingredient that makes Butler’s ballhandling work at the highest level is his eyes — not relying on quickness alone, but setting the defender up well enough to get him thinking one way, before heading the other. I don’t know.
I do know that this kid is good.