Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 106-101 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. Zero mental toughness from the Jazz
Look, I’m not a big believer in intangibles. I’m a math major. I really got my start in my career by analyzing the Jazz and the NBA analytically. Most game outcomes are coming down to skill or luck, not who is stronger between the ears.
The Jazz choked that one. Absolutely choked it. They had a 12-point lead late, and instead of putting the foot down, they messed around. Then, when they saw that the other team was coming back, they played scared — scared to stand up and take a shot, or to make a big defensive play.
It’d be one thing if this was the first time this had happened, but it’s the 10th time that the Jazz have lost a late double-digit lead this season. Oh, and you probably remember last year’s Game 6, in which the Jazz lost a 25-point lead after halftime. If tonight’s game was a collapse — it was — that was a disintegration.
Why would you believe in the Jazz?
I mean, heck: from a sheer tactical standpoint, what happened to the Jazz tonight is pretty much what happened in their last matchup against the Lakers a couple of weeks ago. It’s also exactly what happened in that Game 6: The opposing team went small. Against that, the Jazz’s offense got pretty stagnant and unconfident. Like a weak fencer, they played offense with helpless jabs. The defense was again a tire fire, absolutely baffling at times.
Okay, sure, you can make all sorts of excuses. Rudy Gobert wasn’t playing at 100%. Mike Conley’s tired. Rudy Gay, the Jazz’s big offseason signing that was supposed to help with all of this, wasn’t playing.
I’m not buying it, at this point. There have been too many key failures in the last few seasons. The Jazz lost a 3-1 series lead to the Nuggets. They lost a 2-0 lead to the Clippers, and the aforementioned Game 6 happened after the opposing team lost their best player to injury. During their best regular season in decades, they went a pretty standard 14-10 against top-10 competition; this year, they’re 8-10. And that ignores losses like tonight’s, against an absolutely woeful team that has lost seven of nine and lost their second-best player to injury before halftime.
The trade deadline has come and gone, and their only acquisition was two players well out of the rotation. I have zero hope for them in the buyout market — if players didn’t come last year, when they had the literal best record in the league, why would they join the West’s No. 4 team?
In the playoffs (beyond the first round, anyway), they’re going to go up against All-Star starters; first and second team All-NBA players. The only way that the Jazz work is if they have more team cohesion than their opponents. But when they’re this mentally weak, they have no prayer of doing anything notable in the postseason.
Their only hope is to change their mentality. Otherwise, they’re toast.
2. Conley and Gobert were non-existent
Mike Conley had six points and was a -25 tonight. Rudy Gobert had five points and was a -27. Donovan Mitchell was pretty transcendently good tonight, but his co-stars didn’t come with him, at all.
Let’s get into Conley first. Here’s his shot chart for tonight:
It’s extremely unusual for him to take that many shots around the rim; in his first 51 games this season, he’d only taken 62 shots down low within four feet of the basket. It’s easy to understand why: Conley’s an extremely small person by NBA standards, nor is he very good at jumping. So when he’s among taller people who are good at jumping, he’s likely to have to change his shot or get it blocked.
He has a good advantage here, but as soon as the lanky defender known as 6-5 Austin Reaves comes over to help, he has to change his shot and throw up a prayer.
Honestly, at this point, Conley has to embrace his oldness. He simply has to go full Chris Paul and just hardly ever take a layup. This actually can work — Paul only takes shots at the rim 5% of the time, less than half of the 12% ratio Conley does. Note that Paul is still really good, and Conley can be too.
He just has to be in control at all times, beat people with grift and skill, pass fakes and sheer brain power. But Conley’s at that same point in his career; he’s no longer a proverbial three level scorer. He’s a two level scorer. He can shoot threes, and he can shoot midrange shots. That’s it. Embrace that, and he’ll be better.
Meanwhile, Gobert has to change his mentality too, but to be more aggressive. He was getting killed on the glass tonight. The Lakers were attacking the rim with impunity. And when he was guarding the perimeter on switches, he was just, way, way too casual.
He has to want to succeed more. This play, at the end of the first half, drew significant ire from Royce O’Neale.
You can see why: O’Neale is aggressive in taking over Talen Horton-Tucker, because the team feels very confident in leaving Russell Westbrook alone for short stints. But you can’t just do nothing: Gobert has to either switch out to get the stop that way, or get the rebound, or protect the paint after the rebound. He does none of the above.
This was the winning play at the end of the game. Quin Snyder said he wasn’t happy that Gobert was too easily switched out on LeBron, but anyway, here it is:
And here is what Gobert said about it:
“He scored once. He scored a stepback three. He had just missed one, pretty badly, pretty short, so I dared him to hit that shot and he hit it. ... I thought we did a pretty good job on the situations overall.”
Are you kidding me, Rudy? That is LeBron James. He has literally scored more points in any situation than any player in the history of the NBA. Or the history of basketball. He is, famously, extremely good at pulling up and hitting big shots. And while I understand that you’re trying to take away the drive, which he is even better at, you have teammates for those plays.
To be honest, it is — to get back to it — mentally weak. And Gobert needs to have the mental toughness to say “I’m not going to rely on hope to beat you here. I’m going to stop you, because I’m the 3-time Defensive Player of the Year with bonkersly long arms, and because I’m a problem to be reckoned with in my own right.”
The thing is, when Gobert is aggressive on the perimeter, he is a monster. He can guard a shot and recover faster than nearly any other player in the league; maybe Giannis and Anthony Davis come close. But when he just hopes for the best? He’s a non-factor. The Jazz need more from him than that.
3. On Royce O’Neale
I’ll give Royce O’Neale this: he did take blame for his mistakes tonight, unlike Gobert.
But man, he is so inconsistent, at every aspect of his game. There are times when he gives great defensive effort, we’ve all seen it. And then there are times when he just allows blowbys like this, which put his defense in impossible situations.
There are times when Royce is an extremely effective passer, especially in transition. And then there are passes like this, which I think every NBA team intercepts.
That one was about carelessness — as Mitchell said after the game, the Jazz were playing like they were up 40, not 12. I think he’s trying a no-look? It’s hard to tell. O’Neale led the Jazz in turnovers tonight with four, everyone else had two, one, or zero.
But how can the same man who has the confidence to throw that pass have the lack of confidence not to take this shot? This was the absolute dagger of the game.
Ooof. He has two opportunities at that. He should really just take the first one, it’s not as if Reaves is a scary closeout guy. And then I’m not sure even looks at the rim on the side-step. Nor does he look at the pass he’s making, as it’s quickly intercepted.
Full stop: you can’t have this level of play in your finishing lineup. You need a role player who is going to take that shot every single time. You need a role player who will make good decisions on the ball. And you need a role player who is a defender you can count on. Either O’Neale can improve his consistency and become that player, or the Jazz can try Gay, House, Paschall, and so on.
What an ugly loss this was.