Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s Game 6 98-96 loss to the Dallas Mavericks from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. Jazz can’t prevent perimeter threes
The Jazz won three quarters of this game: the first, the second, and the fourth. But you can’t lose a quarter by 17 points at home in an elimination situation, and certainly not the way that the Jazz did.
Once again, the biggest problem was preventing the wide-open threes that the Jazz have consistently allowed in the last two playoff runs. Especially when teams space the floor, the Jazz can’t consistently keep in front enough at the beginning of possessions or rotate enough afterwards to take away those shots.
We’ve talked so much about the Jazz’s point of attack defense, and it certainly was a problem for much of this series. But I thought the Jazz actually found better efforts there tonight: Royce O’Neale played his best defense, and the Jazz did a good job of hedging and recovering when necessary, or outright trapping the ball out of Doncic’s hands.
Look, I understand if Donovan Mitchell wants to help in the middle of the floor here. But then he has to use his hands, or his arms, or his body, to dissuade Spencer Dinwiddie’s drive here, or the kick out to the wide open Dorian Finney-Smith.
It wasn’t always that bad. Sometimes, the rotations did come, but they were just a step late. This is a good example: Bogdanovic rotates out to the corner for that three, but O’Neale’s not sure about whether he should go to the corner or the wing. The result is a circuitous path that gets him to the spot too late.
This three below was the killer. The Jazz had gone on an 8-0 run, and had all of the momentum in the world. But they’re beat here so simply: Rudy Gobert thinks that Bojan Bogdanovic is going to rotate to the wing, but he doesn’t. Both players go to the corner, leaving Finney-Smith wide, wide open.
In the end, the Jazz weren’t well-drilled enough at doing these rotations to have a chance. At least they tried to make them, unlike in the Clippers series last year, but they were so inconsistent at the execution that Dallas found plenty of perimeter opportunities.
Nor, frankly, are they long and athletic enough to reliably impact players on those rotations. There’s a difference between 6-0 Mike Conley, 6-1 Mitchell, 6-4 O’Neale, and a vertically-challenged 6-7 Bogdanovic and the kind of perimeter rotation defenders that most teams have when closing out: the Jazz’s are just a whole lot easier to shoot over.
That was the gamble that the Jazz took in building this roster: that Gobert’s interior brilliance was enough that the Jazz could go smaller and offensively-oriented at the other spots. In the end, I think the last two seasons have probably proven that wrong. When you have a weakness that glaring, teams are going to attack it — especially the kind of talented teams you face in the playoffs. There was no way that the Jazz were going to make a long playoff run given their deficit there.
2. Unreliable offense
That being said, I anticipated that the Jazz’s defense would have a tough time with the Mavericks going small. But I anticipated that the Jazz’s offense would have an easier time scoring than they did in this series.
The Mavericks were a good and smart defensive team all season long, but there were certainly attackable players: Spencer Dinwiddie, Davis Bertans, and Luka Doncic on a leg somewhat short of 100%. Furthermore, the Mavericks didn’t have the rim protector that can give Mitchell pause as he drives and attacks the rim. There’s a huge difference in efficiency when Mitchell is at the rim rather than eight feet short of it, and I thought he could have some huge games in this series as a result.
In the end, that didn’t happen: the Jazz had a 108 offensive rating in the series. After finishing as the best offensive team in the NBA in the regular season, they finished 12th out of 16 teams in the playoffs.
Why did they fail at the wrong time?
My theory is that the Jazz, as individual players, were pretty darn scheme-able on offense. Donovan Mitchell is the point of the spear on this, and in the last two playoffs, his 3-point shooting was godly. But for some reason, he didn’t have the 3-point shot going consistently in this series. That means that driving his is main weapon, but if you help from Mitchell’s backside, you can get him to take some pretty tough shots. He’s good enough to make them at times, and nearly had a triple-double tonight, but ultimately it’s wasn’t so incredible as to put the Jazz over the hump.
Bojan Bogdanovic comes second. He had a brilliant start to the series thanks to his ball-in-hand skills, but the Mavericks started to use more size to defend him, preventing the post-ups on Brunson that worked so well in game 1. It was harder for him without those size advantages, especially in Game 5.
Everyone else is pretty one-dimensional. Prevent Gobert from getting within two feet of the rim, and you’ve limited him. Prevent Conley from taking the pull-up three, and he’s in the trees, trying to make a tough floater. O’Neale’s not going to shoot much, even if you leave him open. Keep Whiteside off the boards, and you’re fine there. Juancho Hernangomez and Danuel House are not offensive answers. Jordan Clarkson actually had a really nice series, but him shooting efficiently isn’t enough on its own.
The Mavericks got so much out of Brunson in this series because he was so mobile, could attack in multiple ways, and could score at all three levels. Mitchell, thanks to Dorian Finney-Smith and the great help defense of the Mavericks, never got that going. It’s a surprise, but a definite hit to Mitchell’s playoff resume.
3. Well, what a mess of a season that was
The Jazz internally had championship aspirations this season. They didn’t even come close.
To be honest, I was always selling on the Jazz being “true championship contenders” this year. Essentially, I didn’t think they addressed their biggest problems in the offseason, and so a well-equipped team like the Clippers were last season could beat them again in the same way.
We saw some of that, for sure. If this team could defend on the perimeter a little better, I think they make it through this series.
But did they really have championship potential? NBA champions have at least one of and usually both of these two factors:
• Top-5 NBA talent
• Unusually good team chemistry
Obviously, the former is really common: Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and so on. But you can still win a championship without a top-5 guy: the Detroit Pistons and later-era San Antonio Spurs are proof of that.
So in order to win it, they probably needed growth from either Mitchell or Gobert to become top-5 NBA players... and they didn’t have that. I’m not sure we saw significant, overall growth from either guy this season. Gobert got more rebounds, and there were points where Mitchell played amazingly — but those bright spots were counteracted by awful clutch play and puzzling decisions.
What we can say for certain is that the Jazz did not have unusually good team chemistry. I would go so far as to say they had unusually bad team chemistry. Players from other NBA teams don’t snipe at each other in the media. They rarely snipe at the media. They don’t like Tweets and Instagram posts that reflect poorly on their teammates. They don’t repeatedly call for accountability, or repeatedly insist upon the need to trust each other more. The coach usually does not have to go on a 19-minute monologue insisting that everything is fine, because the players sit at the same table sometimes. These are unusual NBA team characteristics.
So, yeah, they failed. And as a result, there’s going to be a big shakeup.
What comes next? Well, there’s a lot of unknown there. Over the next few days, we’ll reveal more about what we know and might be on the plate for the Jazz this offseason. On paper, the Jazz have no draft picks, no cap room, so months ago it was looking like a quiet offseason — but this team’s failure is going to necessitate major changes.
I know a lot of fans feel this way too: this team was joyless to watch, all season long. That makes covering a team really difficult. I love the NBA, love basketball, and love this job, but when the vibes are this desperately negative, it’s tough to keep up.
The thing that made it possible, though, is your support. Thank you, so much, for continuing to read this column and the rest of our coverage as frequently as you did through this tumultuous season. That Jazz fans are so passionate that they’ll read recaps like this one, even when it feels like pulling teeth, is remarkable — I truly believe no NBA fanbase is like the one we have here in Utah. Again, I appreciate you more than you’ll ever know.
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