“If I’m being honest,” Donovan Mitchell began, “today was just weird as hell.”
Heading into Wednesday night’s game against Cleveland, the Utah Jazz knew definitively that they’d be missing a boatload of players, including starting center Rudy Gobert, third-stringer Udoka Azubuike, and small-ball big man Rudy Gay. At 3:01 p.m., it was announced that backup center Hassan Whiteside would join them, having been added to the NBA’s health and safety protocol. Then, finally, at 5:17 p.m., emergency center Norvel Pelle — who signed a 10-day contract with the team last week — was also ruled out, due to “non-COVID illness.”
Having zero centers available is never ideal. Having zero centers available against a team that starts three 7-footers and has a 6-10, multi-time All-Star coming off the bench? Yeah, this was gonna be bad.
Except that, for most of the first half … it wasn’t?
The Jazz did start slowly, and did have periodic stretches of confusing play, leading to deficits such as 9-2, and 22-11, and 50-36. But then they’d pull themselves together, rally back. They were within six at halftime, and closed to 62-58 three minutes into the third quarter.
At which point it all fell apart, with the Cavs reeling off the next 21 points en route to a 111-91 win.
So, what happened?
“We took a lot of good shots, we just didn’t make a lot,” said Eric Paschall, who totaled 18 points on 8-for-11 shooting. “We tried to move the ball correctly and play the right way, but we just didn’t make shots.”
Well … some of that is up for debate anyway.
It’s unambiguously true the Jazz didn’t really make shots in the third quarter, going 5 for 23 overall (21.7%). It helped a little bit all five of those makes came from 3-point range, but they still only shot 31.3% from deep in the period. Meanwhile, going 0 for 7 inside the arc was a bit of a disaster.
But contributing to the problem was that Utah did not register even one assist in those 12 minutes.
Mitchell initially suggested that was something of a chicken-or-egg scenario.
“It’s tough to get assists if you don’t make shots: I shot 6 of 16, Bojan [Bogdanovic] shot 3 of 14, Joe [Ingles] gets ejected after 13 minutes, Mike [Conley] was 4 of 10,” he pointed out. “If we shoot close to our average, we might not be having this conversation.”
Then again, he ultimately conceded that the team’s offense was, in fact, too “stagnant” at times, excessively prone to trying to go 1-on-1, and making bad decisions as a result. Quin Snyder agreed there was not enough set-up going on from the players on the court in that stretch.
“In this situation, we’ve got to run and attack the rim and create for each other. And we didn’t do that consistently enough,” Snyder said. “… We just made it harder on ourselves than it needed to be. The ball would stick instead of moving it quickly or shooting it, and we’d get into some isolation situations — which aren’t bad [in a vacuum], but usually beating your man to create for someone else is what we talk about.”
Meanwhile, the Jazz’s lack of size was exploited defensively. With no real big men in hand, they committed to crashing down to double-team Cleveland post-ups and to cutting off drives from Darius Garland. This meant virtually ignoring the unheralded Lamar Stevens, who reeled off 13 consecutive points in the stretch.
The Cavs wound up shooting 52.2% in the period and 4 of 9 from deep, outscoring the Jazz 30-16 in the period, and turning that meager four-point advantage into a 25-point one.
Snyder said Cleveland had success wearing the Jazz down inside and putting them in unfamiliar situations.
But he added that, in such a case, Utah’s players needed to do more to help themselves. And they didn’t.
“When you’re not playing well on both ends of the floor, that’s the result,” he said.
Mitchell agreed. While the All-Star guard said he had no problems with the effort the team put forth, and noted that “There’s [only] so many things you can do when your tallest player is 6-5,” he added that some better execution would have done wonders:
“I’m not gonna sit here and make an excuse. We were down six [at halftime]. We had opportunities, and we just didn’t make shots or move the ball,” Mitchell said.