The Triple Team: Jazz’s defensive effort is low, and Spurs make them play

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) defends against San Antonio Spurs center Jakob Poeltl, right, during the first half of an NBA basketball game on Friday, Dec. 17, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Kim Raff)

Three thoughts on the Jazz’s 128-126 loss to the San Antonio Spurs from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. The Jazz play casually defensively, and pay for it

After a run of quite good defensive performances, and dominant 3rd quarters, tonight was the exact opposite: the team couldn’t defend anyone in this one, and lost the 3rd quarter 41-23. They did play better defense in the 4th, but then the Spurs made some tough shots and won the game. That’s the thing about playing casually until the end — it only takes a normal amount of shot luck to end up losing anyway.

I can’t really blame it on one player, it was across the board. Let’s start with everybody’s favorite defender, Rudy Gobert. Think about how he usually is defensively — and then watch how easily he lets Keldon Johnson score here.

The old players on the team were definitely feeling lackadasical. Joe Ingles just loses his man backdoor here, and then commits a cheapy foul to boot. That one point would have certainly been nice at the end of the game when the Jazz had to foul, no?

Rudy Gay is a versatile player with many talents, but I do not think hard-nosed perimeter defense is one of them. This is just an easy finish, with no contest, by Johnson again — who was, admittedly, awesome.

(Gay’s inclusion in this list is a little worrying because some — less those who make the decisions on the team, and more the ones who support the decisions made by the team — think that he will be a game-changer for the Jazz when it comes to perimeter defense. I don’t see it.)

Finally, Conley did much the same: here’s a pretty easy floater from Derrick White over Conley.

The Jazz have to be individually tougher on these plays. I get it, it’s a long season, but I do think there’s value on playing harder in these moments to lock a game down. With a 17-point lead, the Jazz should have won this game — but they let up too early, and got punished.

2. The impact of playing injured on defense

Donovan Mitchell was clearly not at 100% in this game. He’s been under the weather for the last couple of days. Mitchell, though, cited the fact that he was hit in the stomach early in the first, which caused him to be off-kilter all game — including at the end, which caused him to miss three of the game’s final five minutes.

“I was messed up from the jump once it happened in the first quarter,” Mitchell said. “Those things come in waves. In the second quarter, I felt the best, but it came in waves.”

But anyone who watched last Clippers series knows: when playing at less than 100%, the defense is the first thing that goes. And honestly, Mitchell’s 75% play was legitimately impactful in the game, especially in the 3rd when it really seemed like the Spurs were attacking him more than any other player.

Something like this is a good example. Peak Mitchell gets in a stance here, stops White, and then the Jazz are in a pretty good place defensively. But once White gets penetration, he’s trying to switch off to Gobert, and they take advantage of the confusion.

The Jazz had communicated so well in recent weeks, and then you gets stuff like this, where Royce O’Neale and Mitchell don’t know what they’re choosing to do.

Again, his body language is just not right here — he’s not sure who he’s guarding, then switches out to someone who’s already guarded.

Now the good news is that this kind of play is officially out of character for Mitchell — he really has raised his defensive level this season. We know Mitchell had reason to not be playing at his best.

But it does go to show the level of impact one player playing at half-speed can have: it shows in both the physical and the mental aspects of the game. And while it’s the tough-guy thing to gut through your gut problems, it also can end up hurting the team more than helping it.

I think, in the end, the Jazz would have been better off just letting Mitchell miss this one after the initial injury, and get him back rested and able tomorrow.

But, well, it’s Mitchell’s team: if he wants to play, he’s going to play. That’s now official, after the Jazz changed their training staff in the wake of the Game 1 debacle last year. I just think he may want to pull out if the situation comes to that in the middle of the regular season again.

3. I have a low panic meter on this one

First, I probably jinxed this win. I tweeted this at halftime:

My bad, everyone.

But ultimately, there was a lot of concern about the Jazz losing this game. A 17-point lead? At home? Cause they played bad perimeter defense? The optics are really bad!

I think it’s basically fine. Donovan Mitchell played really well when he was feeling well — he said he didn’t want to throw up in the second quarter. They were able to play pretty darn good defense down the stretch — the Spurs just made some really tough shots. They made 55% of their mid-range shots tonight — they normally make 44%.

And it’s also just understandable that they’d eventually let up defensively, especially the old guys mentioned in point No. 1 above. Am I surprised the ancient players on the team and the guy who thought he was going to throw up all game played 50% defense in the middle of the season? I am not.

Now, that doesn’t mean that I think this Jazz team is perfect. I do actually want them to add a defensive weapon on the perimeter, like they’re reported to be seeking. Mitchell has improved offensively to the point where they actually feel a little redundant on that end of the floor, and I’d be fine with them sacrificing some offense for defense.

In the end, I’m just much more curious about how they play during the really tough matchups than the easy ones. Yes, going half-effort during the regular season against the likes of the Pacers, Grizzlies, or Spurs, teams that play really hard, is going to cost you playoff positioning.

We learned last year, though, that the playoff positioning matters less than the quality and diversity of weapons you can throw out against the league’s best. Those questions haven’t been answered, but they never were going to be against the Spurs, win or lose.