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The Triple Team: Jazz’s fourth quarter offense can’t operate without Donovan Mitchell in close loss to Warriors

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, left, drives to the basket against Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley during the first half of an NBA basketball game in San Francisco, Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 94-92 loss to the Golden State Warriors from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Jazz’s 4th quarter offense falls apart

Between the 8:45 mark and the 32 second mark of the fourth quarter, the Jazz only scored 3 points. Honestly, it’s semi-miraculous that the team’s defense was good enough to keep them in the contest despite that.

Now, there’s one big flashing reason why: the Jazz don’t have Donovan Mitchell. He is, for obvious reasons, the Jazz’s go-to scorer and threat late in games. Sometimes, honestly, they may go to him too much. But without him, it was a disaster tonight — shot clock violations, awful shots, bad turnovers, just, essentially, hopeless offense.

So, why couldn’t they get more going? Let’s break it down.

One big problem: bad spacing. Trent Forrest just doesn’t demand respect as a shooter: look at how much Wiggins can help in the paint on a play like this, and look at how unworried the Warriors are about his corner three when it does go up.

This affected nearly every play when Forrest was in the game — and Forrest had a nice game! But with the ability to just leave him alone, the Warriors did frequently.

Second, without Mitchell, and without Gobert for the final 2:30, the Jazz just didn’t have anyone who can beat a mismatch. This play is after the Jazz forcing switches to get the matchups they wanted: who would you have preferred attack here?

Bogdanovic has a prayer, at least. Conley — we’ll get to him later — is going to struggle against Otto Porter’s length. Joe Ingles can’t go one-on-one, neither can Royce O’Neale. Eric Paschall can but I don’t think it’s a winning play against Wiggins. Bogey is probably the best you’ve got.

I guess the Jazz could have put Clarkson in the game, but Clarkson was awful again: 3-13 from the field tonight. He’d also played the previous 14 minutes. Kindly, a tired, gassed, cold Clarkson isn’t the answer.

The Jazz also tried posting up both Bogdanovic and Rudy Gay, and neither worked — the Warriors just collapsed, forced kickouts to Ingles, O’Neale, and Forrest, and those guys have slow trigger fingers against fast, athletic closeouts.

And remember, you can’t run traditional plays against a switching defense. Well, you can, but they’re likely going to be ineffective against players who can’t attack the gaps — and this is Conley, two second-round picks, and two undrafted guys out there.

It’s just tough. The Jazz need Mitchell back.

2. Bad defense early, effective defense late

The Jazz allowed a 133 defensive rating through the first three quarters of the game — then magically flipped the switch and allowed just 11 fourth-quarter points to the Warriors, even as they were flailing on offense. It was pretty impressive, actually. Ugly, but impressive.

We’ll cover the bad, of course. This was the most absurd play of the game, as three Jazz dudes just let this rebound fall to the floor for reasons unknown and unknowable.

But something like this is a lot better: Forrest — who, again, was great defensively — stays in front, Clarkson wildly closes out, and Gobert deals with the stuff in the paint, then everyone crashes the glass. There’s real effort and determination here.

At the end of the game, the Jazz were even just having Joe Ingles leave his man to come stand in Steph Curry’s area. The idea was less about making life tough on Steph and more about just trying to get the ball out of his hands — they did something like this on three consecutive plays.

Is this a good idea? Eh, I don’t love it. It did work, though: three consecutive threes were missed, and the Jazz had a chance to win the game.

3. Let’s talk about Mike Conley

Mike Conley is a superb player.

He’s the best shooter on the team on a percentage basis, making 42% of his threes while taking only 0.6 fewer per game than Bojan Bogdanovic. In particular, his pull-up three in pick and roll is an absolute weapon.

He’s so efficient — he has the floater and the pull-up, obviously, but he also has the ability to unlock Rudy Gobert’s interior efficient scoring in a way that the other Jazz ballhandlers (save Joe Ingles) just don’t. He’s gone from not knowing how to throw a lob pass to being Utah’s best lob passer in the course of 2.5 years, and the floater is a nice tool, too.

He’s very smart defensively: his play went a long way towards Curry’s bad night tonight, sticking with the guy through all of his twists and turns. Of course, his size is limited, but he just so frequently makes the right play. He’s a reliable communicator, too.

On press row, the number of times where we’ve just looked at each other and said something like “Mike Conley is so good” has to be in the hundreds.

I want to be very clear: the Jazz should not trade Mike Conley. They would immediately become so much worse. Mike Conley for Marcus Smart, or whatever, does not make the Jazz better.

He is aging, though.

His usage is shrinking: it’s gone from 23% last year to 20% this year. He’s down to taking only 7% of his shots around the rim. And in this stretch, without Mitchell, he’s yet to eclipse taking 12 shots in a game. It’s not from setting up his teammates so much, either: he also hasn’t eclipsed four assists in a game. Tonight, he was 3-10 from the field, with two assists, in a game where the Jazz desperately needed him to be able to take over.

And make no mistake: 2019 Conley takes over this game with some clutch baskets throughout the fourth quarter. 2022 Conley was unable to. This was a bucket the Jazz needed, and Conley didn’t have much of an answer. He’s trying to draw a foul here, but grift is his best weapon in the paint right now.

I don’t want to show you his turnover when trying to isolate Steph, either.

I don’t think this matters much when Mitchell is healthy. When Mitchell’s on the floor, he usually has the ball in his hands. And Conley’s lineups are +11 without Mitchell on the floor — still really good. It’s not actually a problem.

But when Mitchell isn’t healthy, and Conley is going up against opposing starters, the Jazz don’t really have enough firepower: it’s Bojan Bogdanovic as option No. 1, with Conley a distant second or third rather than the lead guy he would have been before. And that probably means that the Jazz wouldn’t be able to survive a longer-term loss of Mitchell.

We knew that the Jazz couldn’t survive a long-term Gobert injury before now; and with Conley at this stage of his career, it means they can’t really survive a Mitchell one, either. Conley, simply, can’t moonlight as a first option.

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