Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 132-126 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. Jazz win this game by attacking Gobert on the perimeter
I love Rudy Gobert. He truly is an incredible player.
When he makes these choices, when he is a bit reluctant to leave the paint, you can exploit it. And that’s what the Jazz did at the end of the fourth quarter, turning a 4-point deficit into a 7-point lead. Steve Jones Jr., one of the best follows on Twitter, tweeted out this quick little highlight video of it:
• On that first Jordan Clarkson three, Gobert’s absolutely in no man’s land. He’s not contesting Clarkson’s shot, nor getting to the threat of Kelly Olynyk out top. I am, again, truly a believer that Gobert can guard the perimeter — but he’s really not doing anything for his team here.
• Second play? Olynyk’s Gobert’s man. There’s no reason for him to dive down to the paint. Olynyk’s the threat. He’s gotta guard it — and he doesn’t.
• Third play ... again, watch Gobert. What’s he doing here? The Defensive Player of the Year is so good when he’s engaged in the play. When he’s standing in the middle of the court, it’s not valuable.
• And on the fourth play, he’s moved to guard Markkanen, the Jazz screen Gobert out of the play on the perimeter, the Wolves don’t figure out the switch, and the result is Conley driving to the rim with no help at all.
Look, I covered Gobert for nine seasons. If this happened in those nine seasons, I would absolutely lead off this Triple Team essentially writing-screaming at him to get more involved in these plays. He’s a very good perimeter defender! But just watching isn’t an option: he can play excellent defense a full two steps closer to the screen, still lock down the paint, and make an impact on these shots.
And this is one frustrating thing about Rudy: he indisputably goes through these lulls where he does just kind of lurk rather than attack. The difference is stark.
Tonight, the Jazz were on the other end of it, took advantage, and won.
2. Jordan Clarkson — playmaker?
Jordan Clarkson had five assists in his first game, six tonight, after a preseason where he averaged four assists per game. He’s averaged 1.6, 2.5, and 2.5 per game in his first three seasons with the Jazz, so this is more. Visually, too, I think he’s just doing more to look outward to other teammates.
Frankly, I am used to Clarkson just dribbling the heck out of the ball, exploring the paint mostly as a path to get his defender off balance, which he can then use to get past him, or uncork the floater or short jumper — Clarkson has awesome touch. But watch this assist from the Jazz’s first game: he probes the defense, using a jab step step-through to get into the paint, and then reads the help defender to find Markkanen out in the corner.
That’s really nice! It’s veteran savvy!
On this play, I am convinced that previous versions of Clarkson just look to finish at the rim here — even against Gobert. Instead, Clarkson contorts his body and makes this incredible pass to Conley for what really was the game-winning three.
You’ll note both plays are jump passes, and I suspect Clarkson will have some turnovers this year where he gets stuck in the air. But this is variety from Clarkson, and truly good vision. It’s exciting to see him embrace that role as a starter, especially with the shooting he has around him.
Oh, and he scored 29 points too, so that was useful.
3. Generating 3s through 5-out offense
One aspect of the Jazz’s performance that has surprised me so far has been their ability to generate threes.
They’re taking 40% of their shots from deep right now, and truthfully, I thought they might struggle with that. That’s not because they don’t have a bunch of 3-point shooters — they do — but I thought that defenses might stay home on the perimeter and dare the Jazz’s ballhandlers to beat them one-on-one, then stay home on the outside.
That hasn’t been the case. Both Denver and Minnesota have been pretty darn aggressive in helping inside, giving the Jazz a cavalcade of wide-open three after wide-open three.
How? Again, I have to give a shout-out to a great Twitter follow: coach Gibson Pyper, at Half-Court Hoops. He does great Xs and Os breakdowns throughout the season around the NBA, but you can read his Jazz breakdown here — just from what they did in the preseason.
But even though they went just 1-3 in the preseason, you can see some of the trademarks of their regular season success in those same plays. The Jazz are frequently playing with all five players outside of the 3-point line, then using the interior space as an attack point, on both off-ball cuts and ball-handling penetration.
All that off-ball movement can collapse the defense too — maybe more so, even. Defenses plan for how to defend certain pick-and-roll combinations, but they don’t really plan for how tp deal with a marauding Olynyk or Markkanen running down the lane with an advantage.
I’d also note that both Denver and Minnesota have defenses that are pretty unused to playing with each other, which makes impromptu off-ball cuts and wrinkled plays even less natural to defend and results in mistakes, like you might see in play No. 4 in point No. 1 of this article. That’s not to take away from how impressive the Jazz’s performance has been so far this season, but it is just a reality. I’m curious to see how they do against more established defenses.
There’s no doubt, though: it’s been really fun to watch so far, and really effective. Props to Will Hardy for designing this.
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