The Triple Team: Jazz get a win over Nuggets in a game with a pickup-like feel

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Denver Nuggets guard Davon Reed (9) lays in on Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gay (8) in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Denver Nuggets at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 108-104 win over the Denver Nuggets from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. That felt like a pickup game

Basketball, as a viewing experience, is best when teams work together to make the most out of each other. The well-timed cut, the extra pass, the well-executed screens freeing up a teammate... it’s all good stuff. I know I sound like an old-timey grizzled coach when I say that, but it’s true.

This wasn’t that. Both teams ran plays, but mostly, they just kinda fizzled into nothingness as the defenses switched, the screens weren’t exactly difficult to navigate, and the timing just a little bit off. That makes sense, as both teams just had to play a lot of lineups that haven’t ever played together before. There was a lot of mismatch hunting — and a lot of it was successful.

To wit: the Jazz, on average, run nine plays per game that end in isolations or postups. Tonight, they had 20 such plays, according to Synergy Sports. And that doesn’t count all of the times when a screen was brought and then rejected — nine more times. Nor does it count when a player attacks a screen or a handoff after a switch right away, rather than waiting a beat.

It worked. Honestly, the Jazz’s most reliable attacker in isolation was: Trent Forrest. Trent Forrest! This play counts as a high pick and roll in Synergy’s metrics, but you can see... it’s an isolation, really.

That honestly looks like a veteran’s play — using the body extremely well in the drive, making room while the attacker is stumbling, and making a difficult play look easy. It’s very impressive for a second-year two-way player to make an offensive play like that out of nothing.

The post was fruitful too, especially from Rudy Gay and Bojan Bogdanovic. Again, is this complicated basketball? No. But is this successful basketball? Definitely.

You saw the benefits from that style of play. In particular, the Jazz didn’t turn the ball over much — only seven times. They had a 116 offensive rating, certainly good enough. And most importantly, they won.

2. Royce O’Neale and Mike Conley’s extra defensive efforts

Royce O’Neale led the team in deflections tonight, and was just super active on and off the ball in a way that ended up making a difference in the outcome.

Something like this looks basic, but props to O’Neale for staying engaged after switching off the ball, looking to help down low, then recovering back to his man in time to get the deflection.

I also liked how O’Neale forced two turnovers on the Nuggets’ illegal screens. Let’s be honest: there’s an art to drawing those fouls. If you avoid the improperly-set screen, they’re not going to blow the whistle, ditto if you run right into the middle of it. The key, really, is to trip on the extended leg or the outstretched arm or elbow in order to draw the offensive foul.

Mike Conley deserves a lot of credit here too: he ended up with four steals, including three steals in the last four minutes of the game. That’s high-impact stuff. This, for example, is just straight veteran sneakiness.

In the end, that’s what won the game for them: not so much individual defensive stops, but figuring out opportune times to put defensive pressure on the ballhandler. Without Jokic, the Nuggets don’t have guys with great vision who can find open players on the other side of the floor, so that meant that the Jazz could afford to be aggressive defensively and not pay too much.

3. On Alex Jensen

Alex Jensen got his first career NBA win as a head coach on Wednesday.

Jensen’s kind of a mild-mannered guy — it’s a stark contrast from Quin Snyder, who is extremely energetic, hyper-focused, and pays more attention to details than anyone on the planet. And, heck, maybe that showed in Wednesday’s game: the Jazz played simply, and did enough to get a win in a game they were favored in.

“Everything’s a little bit quicker,” Conley said postgame about Jensen. “He draws a play up, and we’re in and out of the time out in like 20 seconds. When Quin’s sitting there, he’s really into it, drawing up five different options and stuff like that. So AJ’s straight to the point is, just doesn’t say much.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Royce O'Neale (23) celebrates a team win with Utah Jazz guard Trent Forrest (3) against the Denver Nuggets at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022.

First, we have to acknowledge Jensen’s importance as an assistant coach — and in particular, with Rudy Gobert. Jensen, by all accounts, has been extremely integral in Gobert’s development as an unlikely NBA star. In particular, Jensen doesn’t treat Gobert with the reverence of the typical $200 million player, instead frankly telling him when and where he’s messed up, or straight up berating him when he’s not getting back on defense to instead talk to an official.

Props to Gobert for taking it well, but equal props to Jensen for delivering the news in an effective manner. Having improved Gobert from the extremely raw kid he was in 2013 into the All-NBA monster he is now is as good of a resume point as any assistant coach has in the NBA.

It’s harder for me to envision Jensen as a head coach, just because I do think it’s difficult to do that with 15 personalities, rather than just one. On the other hand, it worked when he was in the G-League, managing his Canton Charge to become the G-League coach of the year in his second season. He was obviously interested in the Utah Utes’ job, but turned it down in the end — a decision I fully understand, given the insanity that is high school basketball recruiting.

Still, he’s definitely an asset for the Jazz to have, even if he and Snyder are very different types of coaches. It’s good to have a balance.