The Triple Team: Defensive weaknesses revealed in Jazz’s loss to Warriors

Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins (22) loses control of the ball while guarded by Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Isaac Hale)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 123-116 loss to the Golden State Warriors from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. The struggle-bus defense that ended up losing the game

The Jazz did eventually turn it around with a beautiful third quarter — one that showed the potential of this team to be a force on both ends. But outside of that, the Jazz really, really struggled defensively: the Warriors scored 112.5 points per 100 possessions in half-court possessions alone, far below what can be considered acceptable.

So what were the biggest issues?

• They were terrible with the backside rotations. Look, Steph Curry’s shooting brilliance means that Rudy Gobert has to play higher in pick and roll, and sometimes, you’re just going to need to give up the 4-on-3. But that means everyone else has to react to stop dunks, either Jordan Clarkson or Joe Ingles (Gobert thinks it’s Ingles) needs to rotate here to stop the bleeding and give Mike Conley and Gobert a chance to recover.

You can see Clarkson get in better position here, but he’s no match for Kevon Looney. In the end, I just think it needs to be Gay slipping down low. Iguodala’s a 20% 3-point shooter this year; leaving him open is better than this.

• The supposed upside of the small-ball defense is that you can switch everything, therefore never allowing players to get downhill without a man being able to stay in front. But Gay switches on to Andrew Wiggins here... and just allows Wiggins to get downhill. I would not exactly call this an advanced move Wiggins does to get by Gay, either.

• You can see how unused to switching the Jazz are, too. Like, here, Royce O’Neale just bites on Wiggins’ fake to use the screen, giving him a lane to the basket that results in a super easy 2 points. But O’Neale has no reason to jump out — if Wiggins uses that screen, the Jazz are fine, they just switch!

No matter what, staying in front has to be No. 1 priority. But O’Neale is so used to going over the screen that that’s his first instinct, and it puts the Jazz in terrible position on the play.

• In fact, the Jazz anticipated this, and just tried playing zone when Gobert wasn’t in the game — a box-and-one defense. That meant while the Jazz had O’Neale prevent Steph from getting the ball, they played zone on everyone else. But while that meant no switching, that zone box had big, big, big holes nearly everywhere on the court.

A zone is just going to be tough for the Jazz to ever do well. The Jazz, without Gobert, don’t have the length or quickness to be troublesome for that pass: Bogdanovic, Gay, and Ingles are slow, old, skill guys. But it’s especially hard to do well when they only make it work with four players.

The Jazz basically solved this problem by only playing Gobert when Curry was in the game, but it’s discouraging that they needed to go that rigid with the substitution pattern.

• And sometimes, the Warriors just create panic that nobody else does. Watch Mitchell on this possession — I love that he’s communicating about the Warriors’ whirlwind movement, but in the mean time, Otto Porter’s getting a wide-open free throw line jumper.

I know, I know, that’s a lot of video. But I think it’s really revealing about what the Jazz’s problems are, so I think it was worth it, and I apologize for going long. I’ll wrap up as follows:

1) When Gobert is in the game, and when he has to step to Steph, the backside rotations aren’t quick enough. Nor are the backside rotating players capable of defending in the paint.

2) When Gobert isn’t in the game, they aren’t reliably able to keep attacking players in front. Some of this is personnel, some of this is unfamiliarity with the scheme, but no matter what, it’s not good enough. Golden State had a 140 offensive rating when Gobert was out.

2. The offense in the third quarter

The Jazz scored 41 points in the third quarter, which allowed them to come all the way back and take the lead after playing so poorly early. And I think it’s worth showing what the Jazz did well to get it done.

Essentially, they got Gobert involved in screening and rolling in unusual ways. Check this play out, for example:

So in the pick and rolls we usually imagine with Ingles and Gobert, they both end up close to the rim, right? Ingles saunters his way down the lane, and Gobert’s rolling too. Ingles can throw a lob or do the pass-fake layup.

But the Warriors are cutting that off in a couple of ways: they’re crowding the 3-point line with Donovan Mitchell’s man, and Kevon Looney is rotating down low. Of course they are, they’re extremely well coached. So Ingles, smartly, throws it to O’Neale — giving Gobert both the time to get down low and the Jazz an angle to throw the pass. Nice.

Here’s another way to do an Ingles/Gobert pick and roll without needing to do it the old-fashioned way: just do it off the ball, and have Mitchell deliver the pass. After all, it’s a lot harder for Mitchell’s man to help when the Jazz’s leading scorer actually has the ball in his hands! The result is an easy layup for Ingles.

Play it again, Sam: but with a new outcome this time.

As we think about trading Joe Ingles, it’s worth thinking about this sequence. Would the Jazz lose this? Ingles makes two terrific passes here, cuts really hard, and his size allows him to make reads that smaller players can’t.

I think, ultimately that you could probably get a motivated Gay to do this, but probably less consistently. Clarkson’s going to look for his shot more often, and the defending team might be more liable to just go under the various kinds of screens, ruining the attack. Bogdanovic... no, I don’t trust him to dribble in a crowd. Conley is great at this too, but he can’t play all the time.

Regardless, this half-court execution and Warriors turnovers at the other end brought them all the way back.

3. What if this game is played at full, even strength?

So, it’s worth having the conversation. The Warriors were missing Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Damion Lee, and James Wiseman. Meanwhile, the Jazz were missing Hassan Whiteside, Udoka Azubuike, and Eric Paschall. I don’t think the Jazz play Azubuike under essentially any circumstance — he is just so far away from being a useful NBA basketball player. While No. 2 pick Wiseman is certainly a better player, he’s also very exploitable.

First, the Jazz dominated the boards tonight, with a second-chance points advantage of 25-7. If Green plays, some of that advantage is lessened, as Green is a ferocious rebounder. The Warriors probably more consistently nail their rotations defensively as well.

But with Whiteside, the Jazz don’t have to play Gay at the center — and Gay’s minutes were the problem tonight. He was a -19 in his 19 minutes on the court; when the Jazz had Gobert, they were a +10.

Now, Whiteside has his problems. I think the constant movement of the Warriors offense would give him some fits; he’s usually very good at defending an opposing team’s first action, and pretty bad at dealing with the more complicated stuff. But would he be better than Gay was tonight? No question. I also think Paschall might have been a better defensive option, too, at center: I think he does a better job at keeping Wiggins in front above, for example.

What’s Klay Thompson going to look like when he comes back? That’s the question that the whole basketball world wants to know, but I suspect at least his shot will still be functional. That would just open up more for the Warriors.

Of course, it’s also worth noting that the Warriors had three days of rest, while the Jazz were on a back-to-back. And the Warriors shot the lights out of the ball, shooting 53% from deep. They’re usually good, but not that good.

It’s close. In the end, it still feels like the Jazz are a defensive piece away from being able to reliably beat the Warriors at full strength — you’d need someone who can rotate, can keep players in front, and not represent an offensive liability. That’s much, much easier said than done, but that has to be the Jazz’s goal at this year’s trade deadline.