The Triple Team: Jazz tear apart Hawks defense, and throw new looks at Atlanta’s offense to slow them down

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) battles for a loose ball with Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley (11) in the first half during an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 110-98 win over the Atlanta Hawks from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Jazz are so good at exploiting questionable defense

It’s fair to say that the Hawks are playing exceptionally questionable defense at the moment — they’re ranked 27th so far there, but have been even worse in the second halves and in tight situations. And there’s nothing the Jazz are better at than exploiting defenses that are a step slow, or otherwise have weaknesses in personnel.

I like Trae Young, but he’s an awful defender. Kevin Huerter tries but is quite small. Danilo Gallinari isn’t fleet of foot. Lou Williams has always been a poor defender, and is worse than ever.

So it’s not really that complicated. Force a switch with a good scorer onto one of their bad defenders, and have them go to work. This is yikes-level defense by Gallo — Clarkson’s spin is good, but it’s not something we don’t regularly see in his game.

Joe Ingles might be the NBA’s slowest player at this point — okay, slowest perimeter player? But this is just a straight-line drive with his off hand, all the way to the rim, on Huerter.

Interestingly, the Hawks knew they would get killed if it was Donovan Mitchell doing the attacking against the Hawks’ defenders. So they trapped Mitchell in the pick and roll pretty often. But here, the Jazz have a nice wrinkle and response to it: Royce O’Neale comes up and sets the screen, Mitchell finds him, and leaves him to exploit the 4-on-3. He does, finding Bogdanovic open in the corner.

It’s just really solid offense from the Jazz. I think they do this specific thing, picking on weak defenders, better than any other team in the league in the regular season, getting a variety of good actions out of it. Tonight was certainly an example of that.

2. Throwing different looks at Trae Young

But the Jazz’s defense was also very good. Yes, Young scored 27, and Heurter 28, but I thought the Jazz did a very good job in bottling them up to be mostly excellent scorers, rather than excellent facilitators. They did that by throwing a variety of defenses: standard drop-big, to be sure, but also a lot more.

This is something I haven’t seen before: a backcourt trap! Here, O’Neale comes over in the backcourt to make Young give the ball up early. The tradeoff is that the Hawks have a 4-on-3 for a little while, but look at how quickly O’Neale comes back into the play to disrupt the pass Huerter looks to make — forcing the travel.

Obviously, if the Jazz did this all the time, the Hawks would figure it out pretty quickly. But the Jazz chose a weird time to spring it on Young: it was just after a standard Bogdanovic layup. Usually, you’ll see a team come out with a trick defense out of a timeout, a quarter break, or even a free-throw attempt... this was just on the fly.

There were also a couple of times where Rudy Gobert felt he had to switch out on Young, but he still is just proving to be an excellent defender in these scenarios. Gobert has total control of this possession, even after the pass. What a player.

All year, the players have been pretty clear about their goals for this regular season: they see it as an opportunity to tune up for the playoffs, and get better at their weaknesses. Everyone has been focusing on the defensive end and defending talented guards. Yes, Young and Huerter got theirs, but Young also had six game-changing turnovers on the way. The Jazz will take that.

3. Hassan Whiteside’s effort

Okay, this is an incredible play.

O’Neale is up on Cam Reddish, playing physical defense at the point of attack. This is something Mitchell was also doing with Reddish especially, so they must have felt they could make him uncomfortable by making him dribble out of tight situations.

But Reddish wins this one, leaving him to drive to the hoop.

Look at that, man. That’s Hassan Whiteside, standing with both feet outside the 3-point line somehow recovering, staying vertical, and getting a punctuating block.

I can’t tell you how many Kings, Heat, and Blazers fans tell me why Whiteside didn’t work out for their teams: too slow for today’s NBA, no defensive awareness, selfish, lazy. Yet, here he is on a pass-first team, where defensive smarts, effort and team ball are paramount. From Enes Kanter to Jeff Green to Emmanuel Mudiay to Trey Lyles, we’ve seen multiple Jazz guys kicked off of the ship for not having enough of those skills. They didn’t fit in the Jazz’s ethos; on paper, neither does Whiteside.

Nevertheless, he’s excelling. Tonight, Gobert got into foul trouble on some ticky-tack ones, a situation that has just killed the Jazz before. And Whiteside stepped up in those minutes and played extremely well. The Jazz were a +14 in those minutes — essentially winning them the game.

I know I’ve written about him so frequently in the Triple Team this season, but I can’t help but remark about it. It’s absolutely the most surprising, notable thing about the 11 games the Jazz have played so far.

I was talking to a Miami Heat reporter after the Jazz’s game there this weekend, and he told me about a quick chat he had with the big man after his solid play in that game. Apparently, in this conversation, Whiteside was beaming about his recent play. “Look at me, (reporter name),” he apparently and approximately said. “I figured it out!”

Whiteside, this season, has his lowest points-per-game total since he rejoined the NBA from Lebanon. He’s playing some of his best basketball; an absolute steal at $2.4 million this season.