The Triple Team: The Jazz and Thunder both rest players in blowout game — is there anything the NBA should do to prevent it?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell jokes around with his team mates using a break in the action, in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder at Vivint Arena, on Wednesday, April 6, 2022.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 137-101 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. OKC plays nobody, Jazz win easily

The Thunder started Zavier Simpson, Vit Krejci, Georgios Kalaitzakis, Jaylen Hoard, and Isaiah Roby tonight. Off the bench, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Lindy Waters III, and Melvin Frazier Jr. played for the Thunder. So yeah, the Jazz won easily.

There are probably three players there that even hardcore NBA fans like yours truly have some belief in — Waters has actually impressed at times this season, Roby might be able to be in another team’s rotation, and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is a rookie second-round pick that might be something one day. Not a single player who makes more than $2 million per season played in this game.

Even some young players with chances to be good, like Aleksej Pokusevski, didn’t play — Poku got a triple-double against the Suns in a win, and that was enough for the Thunder to sit him as a healthy scratch, because they want to lose games. And that’s kind of problematic, I think.

Earlier Wednesday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver noted that he’s concerned about healthy players not playing in games. In particular, he was asked about it in terms of the Ben Simmons situation, but I think his remarks fit Oklahoma City’s situation as well — if the Thunder were trying to win games, they’d be playing their better players on the roster.

Here were Silver’s full remarks:

“The greater concern to me is a trend of star players not participating in a full complement of games. I think that’s something we, together with the Players Association, need to address.

I’m not standing here saying I have a great solution. Part of the issue is injuries. One of the things we have focused on at the league office and we’re spending — we had begun to spend a lot of time on pre-pandemic — are there things we can do in terms of sharing information, resources around the league to improve best practices, rehabilitation, et cetera?

The other way we can get at it, in terms of player participation, is creating other incentives. I mean, it may be — the Play-In Tournament I thought was a beginning of creating renewed incentives for teams to remain competitive and be fighting for playoff position. It may be through in-season tournaments and changes in format where we can get at it.

But I think particularly to the earlier question about direct to consumer — and our players are going to need to understand this, too — that if you’re in a model where, rather than buying a package, that in many cases you need to convince that fan, that consumer each time that your product is worth buying, you want to put your best foot forward.

I also have said in the past, if we have too many games, that’s something we should look at as well. It’s something, as we sit down and we’re looking at new media deals and looking at a new collective bargaining agreement, we will be studying.

There wasn’t any banging of the table or anything like that. From my discussions with players, they recognize it’s an issue, too. The style of the game has changed in terms of the impact on their bodies. I think we’ve got to constantly assess and look at a marketplace going forward and say, what’s the best way to present our product and over how long a season?”

Truthfully, the Thunder are tanking, and so one incentive would be to completely flatten the lottery odds — though I think that could have some negative consequences, too.

But I thought the more interesting part was about how the NBA may well be asking fans to buy individual games in media as well soon. In that environment, you simply need to be convincing. And if you’re a casual Jazz fan, why do you buy this game? Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley rested, and the Thunder played a number of non-NBA caliber players. It behooves the NBA to put on as many interesting games as possible, and this one fell short by most standards.

I don’t really know the answer here. But if I’m a Jazz fan, I would have liked to see Mitchell play. If I’m a Thunder fan, I wanted to see Poku play. And that they weren’t playing was kind of a bummer — and makes our league a little bit more difficult to sell.

2. 10 assists from Jordan Clarkson and Jared Butler

With the Thunder’s lack of rim protection — or really, defense in general — came some easy offensive opportunities. That was especially true for the two best ballhandlers in tonight’s game, Jared Butler and Jordan Clarkson. They could drive and dish with relative ease, and it led to a lot of dunks and kickouts for threes.

And yes, a lot of it is finding Rudy Gobert and Hassan Whiteside. This is trust in the big man: Gobert flashes open, Clarkson delivers the ball on time and on target, and Gobert uses a good post move to get the easy finish.

As a result, Butler and Clarkson both had 10 assists. It’s Butler’s career high, and Clarkson’s high since coming to the Jazz.

It’s also the first time since 2019 that the Jazz have had two players in double digits in assists: in a game in 2019, Ricky Rubio and Joe Ingles did it. It’s also the second time in the Quin Snyder era it’s happened.

In general, the Jazz haven’t had a ton of high assist games. Their offense tends to A) share the final pass load around, thanks to the quick swing passes after shooters are open and B) they now take a ton of pull-up threes, which obviously reduces assists.

But that’s one of the best parts of blowout games against iffy NBA teams: statistical oddities! A Butler triple-double would have been best, but this will do.

3. Who will the Jazz play in the playoffs?

Thanks to a Dallas win against Detroit, the Jazz have only two paths to having home-court advantage in the first round. There’s one path to the fourth seed, as the Jazz win only a 2-way tiebreakers with the Mavs, not the Warriors. And if both Golden State and Dallas were to lose their games and the Jazz were able to win both remaining games, they’d actually have the third seed, because they’ve won the Northwest Division — that’s the first 3-way tiebreaker.

I don’t think either is going to happen. The Warriors are probably going to win against either the Lakers, the Spurs or the Pelicans. The Mavs, even easier, play the Blazers then the Spurs. Portland looks extremely determined to lose every game they play.

That locks the Jazz to 5th or 6th. But 6th looks unlikely, too: the Jazz would have to lose against those aforementioned Blazers in the final game of the season, plus lose to a Suns team likely to rest most of their guys on Friday, while Denver would have to win out against the Grizzlies and Lakers.

Okay, so 5th. The Jazz will be the 5th seed. This feels familiar: the Jazz were the 5th seed every year from 2016-17 to 2018-19, and could have been in 2019-20, had they not tanked in the bubble. Obviously, that’s a bit disappointing compared to expectations, but so it goes.

Now, who will they play?

It’s pretty close to 50/50. Per Inpredictable, the Warriors currently have a 43% chance at the 3rd seed and a 57% chance at the 4th seed — really close to 50/50. Can we read the tea leaves beyond that?

I think the Mavs are pretty likely to win out. The Blazers are among the worst teams I’ve ever seen. The Spurs are more likely to play hard in their second-to-last game than their last game. The Pelicans, wanting to seal up home-court advantage in the play-in tournament, may well go all-out against the Warriors, too. Remember, the Warriors still don’t have Steph Curry.

Frankly, I also wonder if the Warriors might lose a game or even two on purpose to face the Jazz. Unfortunately, I think the Warriors will consider the Jazz a preferable matchup to the Nuggets, who they have gone 1-3 against this year and employ the league MVP.

We’ll see, though. Fun times!

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