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The Triple Team: Jazz squeak by shorthanded Thunder, and perimeter defense remains a concern

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) is defended by Oklahoma City Thunder forward Luguentz Dort during the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 110-104 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Unforced perimeter defense errors

In tennis, there’s the concept of forced errors vs. unforced errors. The concept is pretty simple: sometimes, you screw up on a tennis shot because the opponent just hit it to the other side of the court and you had to sprint to even get your racquet on it. That’s a forced mistake, a forced error. Other times, you screw up out of nowhere, essentially gifting your opponent the point. (In basketball, probably two or three points.)

I think the Jazz are having an untenable number of defensive unforced errors right now.

Donovan Mitchell just gets caught ball-watching here.

This is Rudy Gay, the guy the Jazz just signed in hopes (at least somewhat) of picking up their perimeter defense.

More of that coming in the small-ball section.

To me: this is what this regular season is going to be for. Seeding only matters a little bit, but the question of: can the Jazz individually guard their guy enough to prevent what happened over the last two years matters a ton. And to this point, you’ve even had guys like Jordan Clarkson say that they don’t care much about what happens on offense this season, and only the other end of the floor matters.

The good news is that the Jazz did a much better job in transition defense tonight. They defensive-rebounded well. But in the half-court, other cracks formed.

So through 18 games, how many lock-down defensive games have the Jazz had? Statistically, their only top-quintile performances have been of the season have been against OKC on opening night, against Houston, and against a Philly team without Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid. The Atlanta wins were good, but not great.

I just want to see them put it all together at some point. There have been good performances, but they’ve fallen short of elite so far.

2. Small ball lineups

Hassan Whiteside got ejected early in the game, which meant that the Jazz had to play their non-Rudy Gobert minutes with Eric Paschall as the center.

(As a side note, it was a quick ejection from crew chief Marc Davis. Hassan complained about a foul, but it didn’t seem to be egregious? “I didn’t think Hassan deserved that one,” Mitchell said after the game. “We’ve all seen people say a lot more and get thrown out, especially early. I told Marc that, it was real quick, the second one.”)

The lineups did not work, making a lot of defensive mistakes. There were some obvious ones like this, that I’m sure they can clean up through practice. Bojan Bogdanovic and Royce O’Neale just don’t communicate on the switch.

But I thought this one was most revealing: O’Neale just allows a straight-line drive to beat him here. I think he expects Rudy Gobert or Whiteside to be behind him at the rim, but of course, he’s not.

That’s the mentality that the Jazz have to get past. Gobert is an incredible defensive player, and he certainly was tonight. But in the playoffs, regardless of whether or not he’s on the floor, to ask him to make 50 defensive plays per game on straight-line drives is just untenable. If Josh Giddey is doing it to you, so can Paul George. (Or Reggie Jackson.)

As bad as the minutes turned out to be, though, I’m glad the Jazz used the look — and I hope they do it more this season. Last season, the Jazz didn’t have any versatility to counter the Clippers’ five-out lineups. I hope they at least have the option to when the playoffs roll around this season, but they’ll need to practice it for it to work.

3. Why Donovan Mitchell didn’t score very many points

I get it: Mitchell only had 13 points tonight. Massive disappointment reigns. And heck, he only had seven coming into the last couple of minutes! Did Andy’s criticism make Donovan get in his head?

Nah. Look at some of the defensive attention Mitchell got in this game!

Screenshot from Jazz/Thunder

Screenshot from Jazz/Thunder

They’re just giving you a Bogdanovic corner three? They’re that okay with Mike Conley being open from deep? Sure, take it.

I am very, very, very okay with Mitchell drawing a lot of attention and then, rather than forcing the issue, using that attention to set up his teammates. Yes, he only had five assists tonight, but I felt he had many, many more potential assists that weren’t given due to missed shots, or players attacking the rim after those closeouts.

Interestingly, they did not give him the same help in the paint with a couple of minutes left — maybe they were trying to pull a quick one on Mitchell, making him pass while not giving his teammates anything? Regardless, it didn’t work: Mitchell scored the Jazz’s final six points to seal it.

Perhaps relatedly, I also thought Clarkson had a good game, in a lot of the same ways. Instead of forcing up the shots, Clarkson probed the defense, found it collapsed easily, and then found open shooters. The Jazz had a whopping 19 corner threes tonight — generally, that’s a recipe for more significant success than this six point win, but the Jazz got a little unlucky with the shooting.

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