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The Triple Team: Donovan Mitchell does the little things to help Jazz beat Knicks. Can he do them consistently?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) makes a move on New York Knicks guard Alec Burks (18) as the Utah Jazz and the New York Nicks play an NBA basketball game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 7, 2022.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 113-104 win over the New York Knicks from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Donovan Mitchell’s non-scoring plays

Donovan Mitchell scored seven points in six shots the fourth quarter. They were good points.

But he did so much more to help the Jazz win with his off-ball plays — four assists, three steals, two offensive rebounds, and it’s those kind of plays the Jazz desperately need Mitchell to make in order to be at their very best.

This pass is already a great look for Mitchell — leaping, over the top, to a wide-open Conley in the corner. But the rebound is incredible: Mitchell Robinson is a great rebounder, and to just jump over the top of him like this, then have the wherewithal to find Udoka Azubuike... it’s just tremendous.

This play really sealed the game... Mitchell gets his super-long wingspan in the middle of this handoff to get the steal and the easy two points.

I thought that Quin Snyder and Mike Conley were relatively pointed in their comments about how much they need that to continue.

“Those are winning plays. For him to play every second, of every minute, of every game — that’s what I’ve wanted to challenge him to do,” Snyder said.

“When he’s taking over other areas of the game — we’re watching the film every game and he’s preaching it — as a leader, from his standpoint, he has to go out and do all of the things he asks of us to do,” Conley said. “We’re very excited about the way he approached and finished the game.”

More than that, you can see how important it is for Mitchell to do this to get everyone else on board the train as well. If he’s asking everyone else to defend, but not defending himself, the speech lands on deaf ears. If he defends and impacts the game like he did tonight, then buy in gets really high. Plus, you get all of these other ancillary benefits: the crowd gets in the game, you get high-efficiency transition and putback opportunities, and so forth. In other words, you become a really good team.

And, to his credit, Mitchell said the right things too. He truly is excellent at saying exactly the right thing about this all: that he needs to be an impact player on defense, that he needs to make the small plays as well as the flashy one. Here, he even notes that he needs to take fewer shots to save energy for the other good stuff!

“It’s just a matter of picking your spots,” Mitchell said, about saving his energy for those hustle plays. “I took 26 shots, maybe it could be 21. I had four turnovers. Maybe those 10 threes could be seven.”

As much as the Jazz need to improve their defense via a trade, they also need the players they have to set a higher level there. Mitchell, more than anyone, is the key to that. He’s shown he can do it — now can he do it consistently?

2. Why couldn’t the Jazz get a defensive rebound?

20 offensive rebounds is a pretty catastrophically bad number to give up. While Snyder referenced the Jazz’s lack of size as part of the problem, I just went back and rewatched all 20, and just thought there were plenty of times where the problem was execution, not size.

I counted three rebounds that were unlucky bounces; that’s just going to happen. I counted two that were in transition that the Knicks just outnumbered the Jazz on that end of the floor; that’s just going to happen. Another one where a Knicks player clearly shoved to create the space, but the foul wasn’t called. Another time, two Jazz players both went for the board, ended up colliding with each other, and losing it. Once, a Jazz player had the ball right in his chest, and just kind of dropped it. Mistakes are understandable. That’s eight offensive rebounds that I’m mostly okay with.

But there were significant issues with the rebounding on the other ones. Take this play: O’Neale kind of hops to contest the shot, but realizes that Whiteside is going to try to contest, meaning that both players are out of position for the rebound later. Trent Forrest has little chance against Robinson alone, and Mitchell doesn’t come and help until too late.

It’s a little bit of the old “KYP” — know your personnel — that Matt Harpring used to always say, but this time, it’s about your own teammates. You know Whiteside and Azubuike are just going to be uber aggressive in trying to block shots; it’s all they know how to do. In these cases, their teammates have to be so, so focused on attacking the defensive glass while they move out of the play.

Zooming in, ‘Dok struggled early with Robinson, just getting bested one-on-one to the tune of three first-quarter offensive rebounds — ‘Dok himself only had two rebounds in the entire half. Late, he competed much more — to many plaudits from his teammates and coaching staff. I suppose this, for example, is an error of aggression? But just boxing out his man gets this rebound off a free-throw pretty easily.

Finally, there were two that I really thought Jordan Clarkson needed to be more engaged on. On another free-throw offensive rebound, it’s was Clarkson’s job to box out the shooter... and he just chose not to.

They ended up only allowing two offensive boards in the fourth quarter after giving up 18 in the first three quarters, and that played a major role in the win.

3. Should ‘Dok play?

One week ago, I wrote, incredibly dismissively, that ‘”Dok ain’t it either.”

My bad. Since then, he hasn’t been amazing, but he’s honestly been a better option at the center minutes than Hassan Whiteside. Take tonight: when he was on the floor, the Jazz’s defensive rating was 92. When Whiteside was the team’s center, the Jazz’s defensive rating was 119. That’s a big difference.

The good is that you can count on ‘Dok to compete in, frankly, a way that you can’t count on Whiteside to do. Read this quote, for example:

“It’s hard to work on just being competitive,” Snyder said. “... It’s just that competitive component and that gives your team a lift.”

But the bad is that he’s not going to be a great positional defender — he’s just not capable of moving much. He’s going to be beaten on the boards relatively frequently. And he’s definitely still developing as a screener, which led to a lot of unnecessary one-on-one possessions for the Jazz. Frequently, he doesn’t make contact on the screens.

Hey, he’s just 22, and maybe he can get better? Most importantly, he’s coachable, whereas Whiteside is probably just a lost cause.

Honestly, the key tell is going to be Wednesday night’s game against the Warriors. Given their sterling quotes about ‘Dok tonight, I bet he plays in the non-Gobert minutes then. And then, can he keep up with the Warriors spacing, quick cuts, and multiple actions? You know, the stuff playoff teams do? We’ll see — I’m hopeful, but maybe not naively so.

Still, I’m much more hopeful than I was last week. Credit to ‘Dok for showing growth in his game, and taking advantage of the opportunity.