Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 116-111 loss to the Houston Rockets from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. Jazz didn’t defend the 3-point line
Ah ha — A new wrinkle in the Jazz’s ever-evolving list of ways to be bad at perimeter defense! You just love to see growth, and the Jazz are really displaying new ways to be bad in every game of this six-of-seven losing spell.
Typically, the Jazz’s problem is that they don’t keep opposing players in front, giving them open pathways to the rim. This game, they just didn’t stick to 3-point shooters — they loved that the Rockets were taking open threes, and made the shocked Pikachu face every time the Rockets made one.
Honestly? One big problem was Rudy Gobert. He simply didn’t close out on the Rockets. This was a good example:
I fully understand that Jae’Sean Tate is a 30% 3-point shooter. However, you have to figure that he’ll be better than that on aggregate in a large sample size on wide-open ones. Let’s say he’s 35% on those. That means that the Rockets have a 105 offensive rating in those possessions — way better than the 91 ORtg they usually have in half-court possessions. This is a bad shot to give up, and the Jazz need to try to prevent it.
However, the second-half threes were so frequently due to awful defensive focus from the perimeter players; honestly Jordan Clarkson in a majority of possessions. Garrison Matthews scored a season-high 23 points tonight, and it was as if the Jazz forgot that he is a quality shooter. Here’s an example of Clarkson just kind of losing urgency in the middle of the play:
Again, here’s a know-your-personnel type of moment from Clarkson. Matthews is not a pick-and-roll player; him using this screen is not as urgent of a threat as him simply launching the corner three. So defend first things first.
And, I’m sorry, Royce O’Neale can’t sink this deep in the paint without knowing where his man is.
It’s just so disappointing. This team lost a 13-point lead at home to the worst team in the Western Conference, because they simply didn’t try very hard at stopping them from making shots.
2. Playing ‘Dok and House over Paschall
I get that the Jazz want to play big when they can. But Udoka Azubuike isn’t good enough to play over Eric Paschall, stylistic preferences be darned.
Like, ‘Dok just completely forgets about the 3-second rule. Honestly, they don’t often call three seconds, and yet if you’re this egregious about it, the referees kind of don’t have any choice. He had three tonight.
On the other end of that comparison, I’m not naive about Eric Paschall. He did play against the Lakers, and put up zeros across the board in his seven minutes. He is not the savior of everything. Warriors coach Steve Kerr also didn’t play him. (But Kerr definitely wouldn’t be playing ‘Dok.)
But I would argue that playing small ball, especially a double-heavy small-ball, might have been the right move for this Jazz team against the Rockets. The Rockets turn the ball over more than any team in the NBA, coughing up the ball over 15 times per contest. Forcing them to move the ball might be a good idea; after all, they’re not very good at passing accurately!
Instead, it was believing in ‘Dok. Who actually played pretty well, relative to my expectations. And yet, having seen Paschall play — man, the Jazz could have used his energy, on both ends of the floor. Instead, the Jazz slept-walk through large portions of this game.
But let’s say that you don’t believe the Paschall-at-center lineups can work, due to him being smallish and not a great rebounder. Then I think it still makes sense to play him at the four in place of Rudy Gay, instead of Danuel House. Maybe the thinking there is that the Jazz want to find out if House can be a contributor while he’s on his 10-day?
Honestly, I think Paschall’s earned more minutes. Tonight, the opportunity was there to give them to him... and he was passed over. That’s a shame.
3. Bad vibe tribe
There’s just a weird and bad vibe to this team right now. I know, this is highly unscientific. Analytics are not at play here. But the Jazz have a poor home record, can’t figure out how to play defense, have been selfish offensively, and keep losing leads to just terrible teams.
Obviously, there’s what happened last week, with the whole Rudy Gobert giving Devin Booker compliments as slights to Donovan Mitchell thing. But it goes beyond that: Gobert said that the Jazz aren’t having fun right now.
“I feel like those guys were having more fun than we did,” Gobert said. “At the end of the day, yes, there are those games that we’re supposed to win, obviously. But I think we’ve got to enjoy the game. We got to enjoy the job and try to enjoy playing with one another.”
There’s a chicken-and-egg element to this, that the Jazz would be having fun if they were winning. And yet, they won against Denver, and then the next night came out and played bad basketball and had no fun.
Clarkson’s usually a free spirit, but he’s in his own head so badly right now, just beating himself up over mistakes he’s making over and over again. It’s spiraling a bit. Joe Ingles hasn’t been playing like he’s giving his all. (Before tonight, anyway. I thought he was pretty good tonight.) Conley doesn’t seem thrilled, just professional. Mitchell isn’t a glowing ball of smiles like he was in his rookie season — these days, it seems more like he’s competing more than enjoying.
They’re also not getting out and running as much as usual, taking away fun transition plays. It’s hard to remember a great Jazz hustle play — Conley had a good offensive rebound late, but there hasn’t been a lot of diving on the floor or taking charges.
And behind the scenes... it’s just weird. Danny Ainge was hired on Dec. 15 as the new Jazz Basketball CEO — he’s the second-most powerful person in the organization. Frankly, staffers and executives alike don’t know what to expect from Ainge, he’s just a new sheriff in town. Players, too, know the reputation of “Trader Danny.”
The optimistic way to read the vibe is that they’re dealing with a combination of easily fixable factors: that they’re a little bit lazy right now because they’re focused on the playoffs, not on the regular season. Secondly, they’ve all been dealing with COVID and another “bug” going around the team, the latter of which infected Quin Snyder. Fast forward a little, and they’ll be fine.
The pessimistic view is that the team’s issues are more reflective of lasting chemistry concerns, and that they won’t be able to play defensively or offensively together enough to truly contend. In order for the Jazz to win it all, they need to out-team everyone else — they don’t have a LeBron James to do everything for them. They need to be the 2014 Spurs, the 2004 Pistons, and if they can’t play more effectively together, they won’t be going far.
To me, this slump feels more like the one two years ago (pre-pandemic, when they had losing streaks of four and five games and clear on-court chemistry issues) than the one 10 years ago, when Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan blew it all up. In other words, I think it’s reparable. But it’s certainly something to keep an eye on, no doubt — as is, this team isn’t competing for anything.