Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 122-121 overtime win over the New Orleans Pelicans from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. What. Is. Happening.
The tanking Utah Jazz are 3-0.
Can we talk about all of the ridiculous things that are happening?
• Lauri Markkanen just scored 31 points on 17 shots, from such a variety of spaces and tough looks that, honestly, he looked like Kevin Durant. I understand that the man had a terrific summer, but he was a fringe top-100 player in the NBA last season... and now he looks like a world-beater.
• Kelly Olynyk just had his second consecutive 20-point game, including an iso scoop game-winner that was as ugly as sin, other than the fact it went in the basket.
• Jarred Vanderbilt had three career 3-point makes before tonight... tonight alone he had two.
• Jordan Clarkson continues to assist at a high level.
• Rudy Gay stopped Zion Williamson twice in a row in the post, with a near block and a steal.
• Walker Kessler is one of the best rookies in the NBA.
• Somehow, despite having some pretty iffy individual defenders, they’re pretty decent defensively.
Does this hurt the tank-for-Victor campaign? Yep. Is it just super fun and remarkable anyway? Abso-freaking-lutely. The Jazz have played three Western Conference playoff teams, teams that are otherwise undefeated except for their Jazz games, and won all three games. They’re playing some wacky lineups, in a group of players that have never played together, and it somehow hasn’t meant a loss yet.
As Will Hardy said postgame: “I’m having a blast. This is everything I’ve dreamed of, and more.”
2. Okay, so what actually is happening?
Or, more precisely, why is this happening? In short, I think it comes down to the Jazz getting the little stuff right.
They’re playing a 5-out, read-and-react style offense, right? So how do you maximize that play style? It’s about spacing, then making good decisions in that space.
“Decisions” is a word that encompasses even more than you might think. The player with the ball has to decide whether or not to shoot, pass, or dribble — and if it’s the latter two, where to pass or where to dribble. But the players without the ball also have decisions: where should I stand? Should I cut? Should I screen?
So take this first-quarter play.
The Jazz run a screen, and get Zion switched out on Conley. But then look at the decisions after that.
Decision: No. 1: Olynyk gets the ball back to Conley, to attack the switch.
Decision No. 2: Olynyk cuts to the other side of the court. This gives Conley space, and also kind of distracts the defense: watch how Jonas Valanciunas steps up to the perimeter, just because he thinks there’s some sort of screen stuff going on up there that he needs to be wary of.
Decision No. 3: Conley drives on Zion, but not just to the middle, but baseline. If he drives middle, he’s going to drive into traffic, but driving baseline means that Markkanen’s defender is the only plausible help defender.
Decision No. 4: As soon as the defender helps, Markkanen cuts for the easy dunk. Wide open threes are great, but dunks are even more efficient.
Because no one was in the middle, the Jazz could attack the middle. And even though they had three guys standing in about the same place, Olynyk’s cut made the defense think something was afoot up there.
Now, they’ll start to get scouted on some of this stuff: teams might practice how to deal with this in a shootaround, for example. But this is working right now because the players involved — Conley, Markkanen, and Olynyk specifically — have been just awesome at making the right choices all the time.
3. Setting up a better last play
The Jazz lost a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter, so that wasn’t great.
In particular, the offense really slowed down, as the Pelicans went on a 20-3 run. Instead of the passing and movement referenced above, there simply was just a lot of Jordan Clarkson dribbling, which led to a lot of iffy shots.
Take the last possession of regulation. Will Hardy chooses to go no timeout, trying to catch the defense in scramble mode. but at the start of this possession, the defense is relatively well set, and there’s not a whole lot going on offensively. The Jazz set two screens for Clarkson, but it’s very easy to handle for the Pelicans, because there’s no second option.
Fast forward to overtime. There were 26 seconds left when the Jazz got the rebound, down 1. Again, Hardy gives the Jazz a chance to attack in transition. But when the initial thrust turned into nothing, he called a timeout, even though there was only 12 seconds left in the shot clock. Then, they got the chance to figure out the matchup they wanted: Markkanen in space against a smaller defender. He was fouled, and made two free throws to take the lead.
With eight seconds left, down 1, Hardy used his last timeout to draw up another play. That’s an easier call, because advancing the ball is so valuable there. But it gave them a chance to figure out a way to give Olynyk the ball, with the option to give the ball to Conley, to give it to Markkanen, or attack a mismatch.
Bingo. It is possible to play with off-ball movement and different options, even at the end of the game. When the Jazz did, they found enough success to get yet another surprising win.
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.