Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 108-102 win over the Los Angeles Clippers from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. Collin Sexton’s rim pressure
Jordan Clarkson had scored 23 points on 15 shots in tonight’s game, with five assists to boot — he was incandescent for big parts of the contest.
Will Hardy didn’t play him down the stretch. It was absolutely the right call.
Why? Think about the chess match here. The Clippers had gone small, with Marcus Morris at center. So where’s their weak point? The rim. Who’s the Jazz’s best player at attacking the rim?
It’s Collin Sexton. Apologies to Clarkson, but he scores his points largely in the in-between. He’s not a super high jumper, he’s not an explosive dunker, he’s shifty, crafty, and skilled. Sexton is fast, athletic, and a terrific finisher around the rim. Sexton is smashmouth.
So you get possessions like this, where Sexton can get the ball in transition, and just go downhill, get fouled.
You can get a quick burst of speed around a too-close Paul George.
Frankly, you’re just getting more effort in defense, too. Sexton is smaller than Clarkson, but Sexton is a battler defensively, fighting over and around every screen, applying ball pressure, attacking the glass. When Clarkson defends against a bigger player, he can sometimes just become fish food — he’s just a little reluctant to use his body defensively.
Because, in part, of all of this, the Jazz finished the game on a 23-9 run, coming back and winning again. And I do think it’s notable that Clarkson was happy during the Jazz’s comeback: rather than pouting on the bench, he was celebrating the Jazz’s big plays. He said this after the game:
“They’re hooping. They’ve already got something going good right now, it was a good lineup to finish the game. They had their guys that they wanted to finish the game with, and we had ours — and that’s why we won.”
8-3 on the season, and just terrific vibes up and down the roster.
2. Clippers 3-point misses
We’ve seen the Jazz lose to a Clippers 3-point barrage so many times in the last few years — most famously in losing four games in a row to them two years ago in the second round.
Tonight, the Clippers missed their last 17 threes. And of course, if they make only two of them, this is a different game. So why did they miss the threes this time? I watched all of them to find out; you can too here.
I’m going to be 100% honest with you: the biggest reason is luck. Paul George, Marcus Morris, and Nicolas Batum are awesome shooters, and they missed a lot of shots that they’re certainly very capable of making. As has been very significantly studied, opposing 3-point defense is mostly luck.
I think there are some smaller other factors, though. There could be something to the idea that the Jazz’s length and proximity to these shooters sometimes gives them just enough to think twice on the shot, or maybe make them fade away just enough to make the shot harder. Like here, for example.
It’s open. George can definitely make this shot. But it clanked well short.
They also just got fortunate that the Clippers had one fewer good 3-point shooter out there. John Wall, who has been rarely on the court in recent years, is a career 32% 3-point shooter. You see Mike Conley closeout here without jumping — it seems that it’s the kind of shot that the Jazz might live with giving up.
But yeah, it was mostly luck. If we’re honest about meta-luck, it’s a bit unlucky to get lucky in an early regular-season game rather than in the playoffs, but so it goes.
I will say that the Jazz did a tremendous job on getting the defensive rebounds on these shots, though — in fact, the Clippers got 0 offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter. That’s something the old Jazz really struggled with, but tonight, not so much.
3. How much do I believe?
Being on this road trip, I’ve been asked over and over again by other teams’ staffers and media: Do I think the Jazz are for real? Is this sustainable?
The following is probably not sustainable:
• Kelly Olynyk and Jarred Vanderbilt are not going to shoot 50-60% from three all season long.
• Other teams are not going to have iffy 3-point percentages against the Jazz all season long.
• Bench lineups that feature two of Talen Horton-Tucker, Rudy Gay, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker are probably not going to be super competitive all season long.
• They probably won’t keep playing teams with huge injury issues, and the Jazz will probably pick up more injuries of their own. Mike Conley may fade at the end of the season — we’ve just seen it too many times before.
• Perhaps this level of high effort will wane over the course of 82 games.
• Some of these close wins will turn into more close losses.
And yet... I kind of think a whole lot of this is sustainable!
• The Mike Conley, Lauri Markkanen, Kelly Olynyk mind-meld is the heartbeat of this team. They are so brilliant playing off one another offensively — and it’s just going to be really, really difficult to scheme against. Whatever defenses do, they have counters for.
• Defensively, Markkanen and Olynyk have been great in a variety of defensive situations, and have answered a lot of questions in the paint. The length of the four of Markkanen, Olynyk, Vanderbilt, and Kessler has been difficult for teams to attack, and that should continue.
• Markkanen’s not doing anything too outlier-y. The shooting percentages aren’t out of wack. He’s been this guy for months now. He’s just being put in excellent positions by Hardy and the offense — and it turns out that it’s enough to be an All-Star caliber-player.
• I think Clarkson really can pass now! I have questions about the defense, but his playmaking is impressive, and I don’t know why that would go away.
• Malik Beasley’s always been an awesome shooter. Jarred Vanderbilt’s been exactly this energy guy before.
• Walker Kessler looks like a great piece right away, and should only get better.
• The depth is legitimately useful, and gives Hardy multiple tactical options in every game.
Right now, the Jazz are on pace for 60 wins. Do I expect them to win 60? No.
But at this point, do I expect them to compete for a playoff spot, barring huge changes? Yeah, I really do. There’s too much good stuff here for them to lose 50 games, I think.
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