Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 121-115 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.
This is the longest I’ve stared at a blank page after a game. I’ve been doing the Triple Team since 2013-14, and this is the longest.
They did it again. They lost just like they did in Game 6. In the same building, against the same team. They had a 25-point lead to the Clippers early in the third quarter. Then, in stunning, almost guillotine-esque fashion, they lost it. Again.
This time, there was the added downside of having a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter to lose. This time, there were perhaps even more embarrassing individual moments: Donovan Mitchell’s timeout call when they didn’t have a timeout chief among them. This time, they lost the lead when the Clippers had Isaiah Hartenstein on the court. Isaiah Hartenstein beat them!
To get some inspiration on what to write this time, I figured I’d look up what I wrote last time.
Last time, I wrote about how their loss was reflective of a strong team with an Achilles heel: their defense against small lineups. The Clippers, in Game 6, figured out they could space the Jazz out and attack the Jazz’s poor defenders again and again and again, turning the 25-point lead mountain into a molehill facing a tank.
I could make it make sense then. Last time, it was a legitimate weakness, a basketball Xs and Os flaw. The team couldn’t defend because they lacked perimeter defenders, and, heck, even their adequate perimeter defenders were injured, hampering their defensive mobility. They went out and signed and traded for exactly no real answers to that problem, which significantly concerned me going into this season, but hey.
This wasn’t even that. The Clippers played big the whole time! This was about the Jazz literally forgetting the tenets of basketball. They struggled with dribbling. They didn’t rebound. They made obvious fouls. They called timeouts they didn’t have. They were leading by 25 in an NBA game and then looked like a high school basketball team.
At one point, with about a minute left to go, with the Jazz down by just two, Rudy Gobert just started shaking his head, even as he was screening for an inbounds play. He couldn’t believe that it had happened, again. The team still clearly had a chance! But he was rattled. So was everyone else.
Heck, it started earlier than that, didn’t it? As soon as that lead went down from 25, as soon as it fell even a little bit in the fourth, it seemed like fait accompli that the Jazz would lose yet another lead. They were up by 10 in the middle of the fourth quarter, and I wouldn’t have taken an even-money bet that the Jazz would win the game. The Jazz were actors, playing out their part in a show that they were sure to blow yet again. The Washington Generals, but on TNT.
There are still games left in this Jazz season, and there’s still likely yet to be a postseason. The players are saying that there’s still time to change the team’s mentality, to learn to fight, to learn to play basketball well even when times are tough.
No one believes them. They’ve said it too many times before. They have to say it because you can’t be a highly-paid professional basketball player and acknowledge that your competitive spirit is gone and hope to get contracts moving forward, but the words are meaningless.
Actions speak louder than words. Another collapse like this, this Tinseltown nightmare on loop, speaks volumes.
2. What Rudy Gobert said postgame
While Rudy Gobert has traditionally not been great at the end of these contests (and to be clear, I’m not singling him out, but he is certainly part of the problem), he does absolutely nail it in the postgame press conferences afterwards.
As you lose a twenty five point lead, what’s going through your head?
Just: again. Again and again. And the same way. There’s a lot of things to look at, I missed five free throws, a few bad calls, but it’s the essence of the way we play I think, that every time bites us. I think we all feel it when it happens. It’s like we just let it go. We just have to keep playing the right way, the same way, for 48 minutes.
Why is it that when teams up to their level — athletic teams that can switch and get into you — why is it that when they up their level that you guys can’t figure out a way to run your offense with force?
We get disconnected. We stop playing. We lose the values of this team, which is moving the ball. And that really affects our defense. It’s like everything flows, and then it flows the wrong way and we get disconnected more and more and more. And then the other team feels like they’re doing something good, they know how to get us to that point, they know how to get us there. When you lose the momentum, you give them fast-break points and then offensive rebounds, they get second chance, they feel like nothing can happen to them.
Nobody hits nobody. We don’t get our hands dirty. We never get our hands dirty. We’re a very good basketball team, but I get f--- up every night, and guys are literally beating me up every night, as they should. It’s basketball, it’s a physical game. But we have to get to the point where we do that to the other team too. But teams don’t really expect that from us. We’re a really good basketball team, I think we have great basketball players on both ends. We just, need to figure out a way to get that mindset, to do things for each other more and do it for 48 minutes, and do it even more. And when it gets hard, we need to do it even more.
When it gets hard, we do the opposite. We get disconnected, and then that affects our defense. I think we’ll be alright, but it’s got to hurt at some point enough that we just say f--- it, we don’t have anything to lose. We’ve just got to get that mindset.
Did you say, we have to get our hands dirty?
It’s part of the game, but you don’t win without getting — you can be as good as you want, but it’s mental. And it starts with me. Like, when guys are going at me and they score, it affects the whole team. And when I give up an offensive rebound or something like that — as one of the leaders of this team, we have to set the tone as the leaders, and then guys are going to come ride with us. But it starts with us being tougher.
And we do — we start the game the right way, we play the right way, we get up 20, and this year it’s happened a lot of times. We get up 20 at the end of the third, or 15, and then we get disconnected. It’s like something happens where we don’t move the ball anymore, we give up offensive rebounds, we give up transition points, and we give teams life that shouldn’t have life. If we want to be a championship team, we have to figure it out, but it has to come from all of us.
Does it hurt because it’s 25 points again, because it’s the Clippers?
I mean, it hurts. It hurts to be honest. I can’t speak for everybody, but for myself, it hurts. I’d punch a wall, but what’s that going to do? Nothing. So it hurts, but we’ve got to learn. The only way we can go is forward. And at some point, if it’s happening, it’s for a reason. It’s almost better that we lose instead of winning by one or two. It’s like, how many times? When are we going to learn and fix those things. We have seven, eight games left, and we’ve got to use them to learn to play 48 minutes in the same way. And at the end of the game, we have to raise our level, raise our physicality, and get our hands dirty when it really matters. Because teams are getting their hands dirty on us, I can tell you that.
It’s some shots fired — Gobert isn’t the one who controls the ball movement, it’s guards Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, and Jordan Clarkson — but it’s also some responsibility taken. But he’s absolutely right: when the chips are down, and teams get physical, the Jazz wilt. In Gobert’s parlance, they don’t get their hands dirty. They stop playing good team basketball, they stop being physical, they take prayerful shots, and then don’t even get close to getting stops on defense.
Do I have the hope Gobert does that the ship will be righted? Not really, at this point. But I do think he accurately describes what is going on, besides that part, and figured you might want to hear it from him, too.
3. Donovan Mitchell as cyborg, good and bad
Donovan Mitchell was once again very obviously injured coming into tonight’s game. He wasn’t on the injury report, but he had a very obvious difficulty in his gait in the first half of the game thanks to an injured right ankle. And then he seemed to tweak the injury even further, slipping on a wet spot on the floor. He looked even more gimpy after that.
It is insane that he is playing through this, just one season after he tried to come back from an injured right ankle too soon in last year’s playoffs. But Mitchell is headstrong, and stubborn, and believes that he needs to play. And he is the most important person in the organization, so he’s playing.
Yet, do you know what’s even more insane? Even while playing on a gimpy ankle, he can do this:
That’s unbelievably good. In last year’s playoff series, he was playing so well despite the injured ankle because he became Damian Lillard and just started making pull-up threes. Again, that kind of logically makes sense: threes don’t use your ankle as much. Tonight, he scored exclusively through 2-point baskets and free-throws — it’s all ankle pressure, hard cuts. It shouldn’t be possible. Ben Dowsett called him a cyborg, and that might be closest description to reality.
But maybe his cyborg programming makes him a bit too predictable. Here, with 5 minutes left, he gets caught in the paint, too deep, surrounded by bigger bodies, and can’t find a way out.
And then on perhaps the Jazz’s most important possession, Paul George makes a calculated gamble: he outright leaves Jordan Clarkson wide open in the corner in order to take the ball.
Well, maybe it’s not so much a gamble, when you know Mitchell’s late-game tendencies as well as George does after two playoff series.
For the third time in five games, Mitchell had six turnovers again tonight. He wasn’t the biggest reason the Jazz lost, but just like Gobert, he’s a big part of the problem.
This team needs a shakeup, in the most desperate way.