The Triple Team: Jazz start season showing off their usual tricks against hapless Thunder

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) passes the ball as the Utah Jazz host the Oklahoma City Thunder, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021.

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Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 107-86 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Publishing negative results

Call it preseason extended.

It’s funny, I just rewatched nearly all of tonight’s game to try to figure out something new and different that defined how the Jazz were able to win this game by 21 points. And I had some theories, things I was watching out for on second watch:

Theory 1: The Jazz’s improved perimeter defense was on display tonight. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort have torched the Jazz in the past, and neither did tonight. SGA had 18 points on 17 shots, and Dort was held to seven points on 2-10 shooting.

Reality: Eh, I don’t know that it was anything special that the Jazz did. In particular, both missed most of their shots from deep; but when you go back and watch those shots, it’s not like the Jazz did anything special to contain them. Meanwhile, inside, SGA actually had a good amount of success creating space against the Jazz’s defenders to get his shot off, and Dort blew some layups he probably could have made. They also held the likes of Josh Giddey and Theo Maledon to bad shooting nights, but honestly, those are probably below average players.

Theory 2: Rudy Gobert’s improved offensive game. Did you see Rudy Gobert tonight? He had 16 points and 21 rebounds! In only 30 minutes! Is that reflective of a new and improved Gobert that we’ll see throughout the season?

Reality: Okay, watch this highlight reel of his performance tonight. Do you see anything that is new or surprising about Gobert’s game on display? He made open dunks and layups, and got a huge number of rebounds against some really small centers. He’s still amazing, but as far as trends for the rest of the season? I don’t know, that’s just the Rudy Gobert we already know and love.

Theory 3: Donovan Mitchell’s skill. I just wrote this whole feature on how Mitchell worked hard to improve this season. Did he show off his new and expanded skillset?

Reality: Eh, not really. He was pretty awful in the first quarter, but improved throughout the game to finish with 16 points on 17 shots. But it was through 3-10 shooting from deep, 3-7 shooting from the field. This was absolutely the highlight of his game, but something tells me it’s not something he worked on, just improvisation at his best.

In science, there’s this concept of the importance about publishing negative results. Scientists are running experiments all the time, but sometimes, they get the negative result: the thing they were testing for didn’t happen. Sometimes, the pill doesn’t work. And yet, it’s really important that the public knows that the pill doesn’t work.

Negative results sometimes don’t get published, though, because they make for boring reading — both in science journals and in basketball sports pages. Nobody goes on the Today Show to talk about their scientific failure. And for me, especially in the first game, it’s tremendously disappointing not to make any big, sweeping statements.

But oh well, let’s be honest about this: In my opinion, the perimeter defense wasn’t wildly amazing tonight. Gobert didn’t do much new. Mitchell didn’t show off an expanded skillset. Does this mean that we won’t see improvements there this year? No, we very well could — I might even bet on them. But tonight’s victory didn’t really show off those things.

The Jazz won this game by a lot of points because they’re a really good team, just like last year, and the Thunder are a really bad team, just like last year. Sometimes, that’s all there is.

2. The new guys: Hassan Whiteside, Eric Paschall, and Jared Butler

We did get to see Hassan Whiteside, Eric Paschall, and Jared Butler play, though. Their play didn’t have a huge impact on the game itself, but I do think there were some notable takeaways.

Hassan Whiteside looked pretty decent as a screener, actually. The screens he had to set for, say, Damian Lillard on his last good team are very different than the ones he has to set on the Jazz. With Dame, Whiteside pretty much could just stand in the same place: the pull-up shooting threat of his point guard coming off the screen every which way was the biggest, red-alert threat, and the whole goal of Portland’s offense.

Utah’s offense is different: while Conley, Mitchell, Bogdanovic, Clarkson, and even Ingles can all make pull-up threes, the efficiency comes most when they use the pick and roll to get the big man lobs at the rim or kickouts to open shooters. So Whiteside’s role/roll is critical: if he’s not diving towards the rim, the dunks don’t happen, the defense doesn’t bend, and they’re not playing Jazz basketball. I think he’s further along at that than I expected him to be.

The defense is a little rough, and I expect that to be a more difficult nut to crack. Whiteside is huge, and he’s incredible if he can just stay in the same spot and block a shot.

But he struggles if you ask him to do multiple things on one possession. Fanning out to a shooter, then getting back? Defending an action on one side, then adjusting to watch a pick and roll at the top? He’s not good at that right now. But we’ll see if that improves.

Eric Paschall got the opportunity in the Georges Niang memorial backup PF minutes, and did a reasonably good job. The question is going to be if teams start scouting him to allow the 3-point shot, and he still has a different release from shot to shot. I’ve watched him in practice work with Jazz coaches on keeping that form consistent, but there’s still work to be done there. Still, he can move pretty well, I think.

Jared Butler found his way into the rotation as well, making it a true 10-man rotation for Snyder. He was really jittery in his first game, airballing a corner three, for example. But I thought he competed defensively, and he’ll be much much better at actually making the shots moving forward.

3. New player portraits

It’s been interesting to see Ryan Smith put a bit of a different stamp on the Vivint Arena he just purchased. It’s not that he’s making the place look like a Qualtrics office, but there have been some player-focused touches that I think do make a difference.

My beat partner Eric Walden took some good photos of all of the new art this season.

I’m not a gigantic fan of the black and yellow color scheme, but I love these.

They’re portraits of the Jazz’s players, not as basketball players, but as men, wearing the clothes that they usually would out in the world. Player-focused iconography in stadiums isn’t new, but it’s usually the star player soaring in for a dunk, or shooting the ball, or making a great play — all in uniform.

This is the Jazz giving respect to the players as people — and in general, I believe that when respect is given, it’s usually returned. If you’re an opposing player, that out-of-the-norm approach might stand out, and make you think just a little differently about who the Utah Jazz are and what the organization represents.

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