Denver • When an NBA team loses, you will often hear coaches and players bemoan their lack of execution and precision. They’ll say they had a good plan, they just didn’t see it through well enough.
Utah Jazz guard Collin Sexton invoked that very premise Friday night, following the team’s 117-101 loss to the Nuggets.
Mike Conley had a different explanation, however — a far wilder though perhaps more prescient one:
The Jazz were a bit too orderly at times, and didn’t bring enough mayhem and bedlam to the proceedings.
“I thought that we kind of slowed down a little bit during that that cycle where we were trying to be perfect and get the right mismatch, and it really slowed our game,” Conley said. “We’re actually really good in chaos a little bit. That’s who we are, that’s who we’ve been.”
Which isn’t to say he wants his teammates to tear up the gameplan and totally just freestyle out on the court.
Execution is not suddenly verboten.
But it was telling that Conley was the second person on the team to use that one particular word about letting loose a bit.
Pregame, Nuggets coach Michael Malone zeroed in on the Jazz’s propensity for forcing turnovers and using them to generate transition opportunities — two factors that played into Utah’s victory in the season opener between the teams. Jazz coach Will Hardy was then asked if it was a specific focus of his defensive scheme to try and create miscues.
“Yeah, absolutely we want to try to force turnovers from the other team. I think when we look at our personnel, what maybe our advantages are, we can get out into passing lanes, we can disrupt the other team with some of our length, some of our positional size,” he said. “We’re not a team that is big enough to just sit back and protect the rim. I think we have to try to be a little bit more proactive defensively, create a little chaos.”
That’s the word.
Though the Jazz are nevertheless 4-2 this season despite the loss, they are at an overall talent deficit many nights. Yes, they have depth within the rotation (albeit not so much in Denver, with Walker Kessler, Rudy Gay, and Simone Fontecchio all sitting out either due to illness or COVID protocols), but they lack the elite, high-end stars capable of singularly winning games.
Utah’s players have to find ways to create advantages for themselves.
Pushing the pace and out-hustling opponents have been their go-to in that department, with Hardy putting a massive emphasis back in training camp on players getting into better shape in order to better handle the rigors of constantly playing at speed.
But they didn’t do that much against the Nuggets.
Part of the problem was that the defensive effort was not great, as Denver drilled 17 of 37 attempts from 3-point range: It’s difficult to run when the opposing team is scoring at will.
“Yeah, we talked about it before the game — play our game rather than their game,” said Lauri Markkanen, who had another double-double, with team-highs of 17 points and 10 rebounds. “They slowed the game down, and we weren’t able to — obviously, taking the ball out of the net — [speed them up].”
The coach didn’t really subscribe to that particular explanation, though.
“I mean, we just need to do a better job of getting our bodies up the floor faster — make or miss,” Hardy said. “You know, it’s the NBA, the other teams are going to score some. But that doesn’t mean that we want to be a team that walks the ball up after a made basket.”
And besides, it’s not as though the Nuggets scored on every possession.
The Jazz got plenty of stops; they just too infrequently used those stops as chances to play faster.
“Denver dictated the tempo of the game. We kind of got sucked into playing at their pace. They’re a little bit more methodical, getting into the halfcourt, getting the ball into [Nikola] Jokic on the interior, playing some two-man game with him and Jamal Murray, and we kind of got trapped into that,” Hardy explained. “Those moments when we got stops, we weren’t able to dictate the tempo and the flow of the game, making it a little bit more fast-paced, which I think we did well in Game 1. So again, credit to Denver — they made us play their style tonight, and they’re better than us at that style.”
As Conley pointed out, during that period in the third quarter when the Jazz briefly rallied within seven points, and then again later, after the regulars let go of the rope and the end-of-bench guys came in, the Jazz were playing with more abandon, with more freedom, and it showed in the results.
“As we saw as the game kind of went on, when we had our good stretches, it was a lot of up and down, it was a lot of random switches on defense, and just being wild but under control,” Conley said.
As for the rest of the game, well … too much processing and debating how to respond to Denver’s skill, and not enough just going out there and letting instinct take over.
“I think a lot of it is, when they make two or three 3s in a row, and we get some good looks and we miss them, and then it’s like, ‘OK, we got to get something good, we got to get a good bucket,’ and then we start overthinking the game,” said Conley. “When you’re playing a team like this, it’s almost like you have to think less and just use your athleticism, use your length, and play with speed. And we just didn’t do that enough tonight compared to the first time we played them.”