The Triple Team: Jazz can’t get stops against Mavericks without a center, fall to 5th in Western Conference

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) drives against Dallas Mavericks forward Reggie Bullock (25) during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Dallas, Sunday, March 27, 2022. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 114-100 loss to the Dallas Mavericks from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Jazz defense without a center

The Jazz haven’t played very good defense this year when there’s not a traditional center on the floor. Overall, they’ve had a 124 defensive rating, per CleaningTheGlass.

For one quarter of tonight’s game, they honestly did it, though! They did a beautiful job of keeping guys in front, helping at the right times, and making the Mavericks take some tough shots. Something like this, where Trent Forrest forces Luka Doncic to drive left, and then Jordan Clarkson comes to help at the right time to make him pick it up. I suppose Doncic has a kickout to the corner here, but it’s a non-trivial pass.

In the second and third quarter, though, the Mavs found those 3-point shooters more consistently, and found ways to attack the Jazz’s perimeter on those closeouts — in other words, they frequently took the second shot that was available to them rather than the first.

It is important to note that the Jazz do have a whole bunch of new players out there who have rarely played together before — so you get things like Juancho Hernangomez and Nickeil Alexander-Walker miscommunicating on a pretty simple switch situation.

Overall, the Jazz’s defensive rating tonight was 129. Some of that, no doubt, was the Mavs’ hot shooting — they made 50% of their threes tonight, an unusually high number that’s probably 10% or so impacted by shot defense. But they also just don’t have the practice and tools to defend capably without a rim protector.

With Hassan Whiteside going to Salt Lake City tonight for injury imaging on his painful foot, and Udoka Azubuike out for the season after foot and ankle surgery, that’s disappointing: they’ll need to rely on Greg Monroe in the non-Rudy Gobert minutes or get much better in these small lineups.

2. Donovan playing through injury

Donovan Mitchell injured his right ankle in the third quarter of tonight’s game. It’s the same ankle that cost him some effectiveness in the playoffs last year.

Afterwards, he was very obviously limited on the court. He wasn’t moving well at all, generally kept his offensive contributions to initiating possessions or acting as a decoy rather than all-out attacking like we’ll typically see. Defensively, he guarded Dorian Finney-Smith and Reggie Bullock in the corners in order to minimize his time guarding the ball.

Listen, we know this from last year: the number one most important thing for the Jazz is health in the playoffs. Frankly, Mitchell should not be in a game in which he has just sprained his ankle and his movement is limited. We know that risk of re-injury to the ankle, or imbalance injuries to other parts of his body, is significant. At some point, someone has to be able to tell Mitchell that he should come out of the game.

That’s especially true when the game score is 105-88 with 7:39 left — at that point, the Jazz have a 1% chance of winning the game. A 1% chance of winning the game isn’t worth playing Mitchell, at all, and everyone knows it. Mitchell made the decision to keep going for that 1%, because he’s a competitor. You understand that, but it was an emotional decision, not the right one.

Why didn’t Snyder just take him out? Mitchell, honestly, won the right to control his own injury availability last year, when the Jazz held him out of Game 1 of the Memphis series; and it’s no coincidence that Jazz VP of Player Performance Mike Elliott was out of the organization after Mitchell insisted on his return to the court in Game 2. Elliott was right, but he exercised his power to keep Mitchell off the floor, and there were consequences.

I also wonder if Gobert’s injury situation played a role in Mitchell’s decision: Gobert unexpectedly sat the Jazz’s biggest game of the season due to a leg contusion — I’m guessing he could have played through it, but kept the long term in mind. I wonder if Mitchell wanted to do the opposite and play through an injury to send a message that he was committed to the team? But, in the end, Gobert’s decision to prioritize playoff health probably was the right move.

Goodness, this team is wild. We’ll see if Mitchell plays Tuesday vs. the Clippers — but if his movement is hampered, I certainly hope that he wisely sits.

3. Juancho Hernangomez or Rudy Gay?

Okay, let’s look forward to the playoffs. Assuming the Jazz make it there all right, they have a pretty clear starting lineup of Conley, Mitchell, Bogdanovic, O’Neale, and Gobert. Whiteside is the backup center, Clarkson the sixth man, and probably House as the lead defender. There may be a need for 4th guard minutes at some point, between one of Trent Forrest, Jared Butler, or Nickeil Alexander-Walker?

Who is the backup power forward in a playoff rotation? Rudy Gay or Juancho Hernangomez?

I think the obvious call is Gay, who had one of his best games of the season against Dallas, leading the Jazz in scoring with 18 points. His length allows him to shoot over opponents in a way Hernangomez can’t. He pauses on this shot, but still gets it off.

That skillset might even make him a valuable end-of-shot-clock weapon — Clarkson’s usually the go-to-guy off the bench in those circumstances, but his game requires some time to get his defender off balance enough to take those shots. Gay is just taller and longer.

But Hernangomez is a better mover, and, if I’m honest, I think he’s a better defender at this point, despite the length deficit. He’s been a nice addition to the starting lineup in these catastrophic times. He’s also, frankly, an energy booster. Hopefully, the Jazz don’t need an energy boost during the playoffs, but truthfully, I think at some point, they’ll need one.

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