Saturday’s loss shows the Utah Jazz have a long way to go to match the Warriors’ small-ball success

Forced to play with the scheme due to Hassan Whiteside’s absence, Utah’s defense gets chewed up. Meanwhile, Golden State’s small, switching group harasses the Jazz all game long.

(Isaac Hale | The Associated Press) Golden State Warriors forward Andre Iguodala (9) gets by the defense of Royce O'Neale, right, and Rudy Gay for a dunk in the first half during an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022, in Salt Lake City.

The offseason addition of Hassan Whiteside was considered by some to be a superfluous move by the Utah Jazz. After all, with the earlier signing of Rudy Gay, surely they’d be rolling out nonstop small-ball lineups in the minutes when Rudy Gobert went to the bench.

Avoiding a repeat of their postseason meltdown at the hands of the Clippers certainly depended on that added versatility, right?

Well, Saturday’s 123-116 defeat at the hands of the Western Conference-leading Golden State Warriors showed that there are still a couple of NBA center-sized holes in that grand plan.

Firstly, the Jazz clearly missed Whiteside, who was in the league’s concussion protocol owing to an errant elbow from teammate Jordan Clarkson the night before. Their defense really had problems throughout. And second, the unfolding action only reinforced how inferior Utah’s attempts at small-ball defense are right now relative to, say … the Golden State Warriors.

The most basic and stark contrast of how Utah’s traditional vs. small-ball lineups went Saturday: Three-time DPOY Gobert was a plus-10 in 34:58 of game time, while the 6-foot-8 Gay was minus-19 in 19:52.

“Not having Hassan, with the way we play, it did hurt us tonight for sure,” Gobert said afterward.

No one was pointing the finger at Gay — each of Gobert, Quin Snyder, Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley made it a point to mention the Jazz simply don’t get many chances to work on the specific scheme — but two inevitable truths defined the stretches that Gay played as the small-ball center: The Jazz are very much used to playing with a rim-protecting big … and he is decidedly not a rim-protecting big.

After Gobert subbed out late in the first quarter, Golden State began to start getting a ton of open looks and, not coincidentally, making a lot more shots. The trend continued well into the second period, where the Warriors wound up making 14 of 23 attempts.

Too many times, a perimeter defender would simply get beaten on a drive, and Gay was sufficiently out of position so as not to be able to recover to the rim, or, if he did, a wide-open shooter was then located in the corner, one simple pass away.

“It’s different without having a traditional big in Hassan or Rudy back there, because we base our defense solely on forcing everybody to our big,” Conley explained. “So when that happens, we have to retrain our minds and readjust, remembering not to let your guy beat you. Everybody’s kind of activated into more of a help-the-helper situation, as opposed to trying to make it a two-on-two situation with the big and the guard like we’re accustomed to doing. So it just takes some time to adjust to it.”

And the Jazz — whose small-ball lineup typically consists of Gay, Bojan Bogdanovic, Royce O’Neale, Mitchell, and either Joe Ingles, Jordan Clarkson or sometimes Conley — are a long way from there yet.

“It’s clear that group doesn’t have the same continuity. I don’t think that would be expected right now,” said Snyder. “But obviously, that group, being thrown in that situation, particularly on the defensive end, it’s challenging for everyone.”

It remains to be seen whether that group can potentially emulate it or not, but the Warriors provide an impressive template, anyway.

Golden State leads the league in defensive rating by a substantial margin this season. Former DPOY Draymond Green is obviously a big component of that, but the Warriors looked pretty impressive even with him out of action Saturday, relegated to the COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

Asked before the game what makes the Warriors’ switching style so effective, Snyder replied, “length and execution.

“Execution at the point of attack, where they’re able to get under guys, to neutralize that initial pick-and-roll; and then once that’s happened, their ability both to stay in front and to really shift and shrink the floor — that’s one of the reasons they create as many turnovers as they do,” he said. “And they have big wings that are capable of guarding multiple positions.”

Utah certainly ran into a buzzsaw of those.

While 6-foot-2 Steph Curry is an obvious outlier, and Gary Payton II (6-3) and Jordan Poole (6-4) are also on the relatively smaller side, Andrew Wiggins (6-7), Otto Porter (6-8), Kevon Looney (6-9), Andre Iguodala (6-6), Juan Toscano-Anderson (6-6), and Jonathan Kuminga (6-7) certainly all played a part in making things tough for the Jazz.

In three of the four quarters of the game, the Jazz’s top-rated offense was pretty far removed from its usual efficient, prolific self.

In the first quarter, they scored 24 points on 7-for-21 shooting (33.3%). In the second, 26 on 9 of 23 (39.1%). The third saw them have some brilliant levels of success, as the combination of transition opportunities and Clarkson’s repeated penetrations into the paint broke the seal and empowered shooters, to the tune of 41 points on 14 of 24 from the field (58.3%). But by the fourth, Golden State’s defense found its mojo once again, and the Jazz were reduced to 25 points on 10 of 24 (41.7%).

The biggest issue was how the Warriors forced Utah into indecisiveness and playing slow and over-dribbling. There’s a reason Golden State had a 22-5 advantage in assists in the first half, and a 39-19 margin for the game.

“When you’re playing against guys like Iguodala, Toscano-Anderson, Otto Porter, Wiggins, sometimes that first look has gotta be the shot. Looney, as well, down there. Sometimes that first look has got to be the shot,” said Mitchell. “Sometimes it’s not two dribbles, it’s one dribble and kick, and being able to take that quick 3, that quick shot. Because sometimes you take that second dribble and you get into the paint, now you have all those bodies around you and it makes the decision tougher. We’re a read-based team, and it makes those reads tougher when they close out the way they do.”

The Jazz will get another shot of cracking the Warriors’ small-ball scheme when they visit the Chase Center in San Francisco on Jan. 23. Of course, Golden State might just have both Green and Klay Thompson back by then.

On the flip side, though — Whiteside should be back, too.