The Triple Team: Jazz play best game of season and excellent team basketball in win vs. Sixers

Philadelphia 76ers' Tyrese Maxey, center, goes up to shoot with Utah Jazz's Donovan Mitchell, left, defending during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 116-98 win over the Philadelphia 76ers from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. That’s the best win of the season, I think.

There’s a long list of good things you might contribute to the Jazz winning a game. I’ve decided to use the services of MyFreeBingoCards.com, a bingo-card making service that looks like it was programmed in approximately 2004, in order to creatively show you a non-exhaustive list of those items.

A Jazz bingo card.

Donovan Mitchell didn’t score 40 points, neither did Jordan Clarkson. Bojan Bogdanovic didn’t have one of those games where he makes eight threes and just changes everything. I may have missed Joe Ingles taunting someone, but I didn’t see it out there.

But you know what? The Jazz did just about everything else that you might ask them to. Essentially everyone played excellently as part of the Jazz’s offensive scheme. There were minor moments of hero ball from, say, Hassan Whiteside, but he more than made up for it. Rudy Gobert was incredible. Mitchell and Mike Conley played incredible defense. The team defensive focus on the glass, and getting back in transition defense was at a high-level, even on a back-to-back.

You look at the Jazz’s other wins against above. 500 opposition, most of them have asterisks: the Bucks and Sixers (the first time) were wildly injured, the Hawks wins were in their worst stage of the season, and Denver, Sacramento, New Orleans, Portland, and so on just aren’t as good as the Sixers are. Philadelphia’s not a perfect team by any means, but there are real challenges, and the Jazz met them at their highest level.

For the first time, I feel like this team has reached the level of play of last season. And, well, you remember how last season ended — this isn’t enough in itself. But I’m encouraged by what I saw tonight, especially in the third quarter.

2. Donovan Mitchell as free safety

Donovan Mitchell’s really long, remember? He has a 6-foot-10 wingspan.

Obviously, that can help in individual defense, but because Mitchell is relatively thick and strong, sometimes he’s not the screen navigator and one-on-one defender that we want him to be. I think he’s improved at that this season, but there are still lapses.

But because of that length, I really like him on the weak side as much as possible, just making plays and intercepting passes, in much the same way the Dwyane Wade did during his NBA career. You can see Mitchell start to size this play up as Seth Curry begins his jump: he makes a late break on the ball to get the steal and the easy two points.

Is that a gamble? Of course. But honestly, I’m happy to see him use gambles on these kinds of plays: he’s helping from a significant distance away, Tobias Harris is a good-but-not-great 3-point shooter, and so on. And gambling here leads directly to two points on the other end.

This one isn’t a gamble, it’s just him being hyper athletic. But he really is able to guard Harris and still get all the way across, probably a good 15 feet at least, to intercept this long-distance pass from Matisse Thybulle.

This time, it leads to three points in transition, rather than two.

The Jazz aren’t a gambling defensive team, but playing Mitchell in this role away from the ball allows him to make those kinds of game-changing plays. While he may not have scored 30 tonight, I loved nearly everything else about what he did.

3. Addressing the haters

Rudy Gobert was ripped by Patrick Beverley and Anthony Edwards after the Jazz’s 32-point victory in Minnesota on Wednesday night. If you haven’t caught up with the details, they’re all in Eric’s writeup after the game. In short, they ripped Gobert’s defensive player of the year credentials.

It’s stuff that we’ve heard at least twice a season from other NBA players. And honestly, in general, what NBA players have to say about something like who the best defender is should have a lot of weight: they’re the ones who have to play against them, not us writers!

But the support for Gobert as excellent, game-changing, generational defender is at a pretty high level outside of the NBA player circuit. Coaches both speak loudly in complimenting his game, then heavily edit their game plans to avoid his presence. Stats analysts crunch the numbers and see that he’s contesting more shots than anyone, while allowing a lower percentage on those shots than nearly anyone. Even eye test folks will tune into a Jazz game and be wowed at Gobert’s obvious impact.

So what’s the deal?

I think one of the most frequent explanations I see for Gobert hate is xenophobia, that players and fans don’t like Gobert because he’s French. I suppose it could be true, but I don’t remember Tony Parker getting this kind of slander. I think there could be a bias against European players generally — Nikola Jokic gets some undeserved criticism, too — Luka Doncic is wildly respected.

Another I see is that it’s because he has no offensive game. Again, that could be true, but did Ben Wallace get this kind of hate? Or Dikembe Mutombo? I just don’t think so.

The COVID story is another explanation — but if you think this started here, you just hadn’t been paying attention. Gobert’s gotten criticism long before that.

Another explanation said is that it’s because he hasn’t won in the playoffs. But Carmelo Anthony’s playoff career isn’t exactly sparkling, and players love ‘Melo.

As J.J. Redick said on Joe Ingles’ podcast, it’s all a bit befuddling. If I had to guess, it’s probably some combination of the above factors, plus the fact that Gobert does act legitimately goofily on the court, so limby that he looks like a rag doll out there sometimes.

But I will say this: in general, the players who criticize Gobert are often revealing more about themselves than Gobert. Take Edwards’ criticism, that Kristaps Porzingis gives him trouble as a rim protector. What? Frankly, that’s a pretty good sign that he’s not watching NBA basketball, as KP’s defense is widely regarded as poor — it’s one big reason the Mavs can’t get over the hump.

Edwards is just a second-year player, but what’s Beverley’s excuse? I think his criticism reveals this: that Beverley sees basketball as a one-on-one game. That’s reflected in his play, too: Beverley will absolutely kill himself to slow down an individual defensive matchup, but miss a key rotation or commit a poor foul in service of winning the one-on-one goal.

As a coach, both of those are bad signs. Gregg Popovich once said that the first thing he looks for in a player is whether or not they have “gotten over themselves,” in other words, if they’re willing to put the benefit of the team over benefit of the individual. Gobert criticism — especially of the navel-gazey nature of Edwards and Beverley’s — reveals that those players haven’t.