Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 105-98 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. Joel Embiid’s dominance
We’ve never seen a player get 59 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists, and seven blocks before. It came on an ultra-efficient shooting, too: 19-28 from the field, 20-24 from the free-throw line. (We’ll excuse the 1-5 from the 3-point line.) Embiid scored 26 of the Sixers’ 27 points in the fourth quarter. He was also a +25 on the floor, in just a seven-point game. If you missed the game on TV, it was wildly impressive, worth watching for sure.
One way to measure how good a performance was is a stat called Game Score, a formula created by statistical pioneer John Hollinger. Hollinger’s idea is to put an NBA player’s performance in one game, incorporating all of the box score factors, in roughly the same terms as points: a Game Score of 40 is considered outstanding, while a Game Score of 10 is about average.
For the mathematically inclined, the formula for Game Score is: PTS + 0.4*FG - 0.7*FGA - 0.4*(FTA - FT) + 0.7*ORB + 0.3*DRB + STL + 0.7*AST + 0.7*BLK - 0.4*PF - TOV.
So Embiid’s Game Score tonight was 54.4. How does that rank in terms of the greatest performances ever? Note that we can usually only calculate Game Score since 1983, because that’s when they started keeping offensive and defensive rebounds separately in box scores.
Look at that! It’s the best game of any NBA player in the last five years. It’s also the best game involving the Utah Jazz since Karl Malone’s 61-point performance in 1990 — also the best performance in the fewest minutes since then.
I think you can get into whether or not the Jazz could have defended better. Could they have double or even triple-teamed? Could they have avoided fouling as much as they did? Yeah, probably. But their options were also limited: Kelly Olynyk was in foul trouble, Walker Kessler’s a high-foul player, Lauri Markkanen struggled, and every time they doubled, the doubling guard was both tiny and then also hacked Embiid across the arms.
I do think getting too deep into that discussion can obfuscate how amazing Embiid was tonight, making all sorts of shots. He drew those fouls pretty masterfully, and then the eight assists point to how effective he was passing out of help situations. Oh, and he also completely stymied the Jazz on the other end of the floor.
In other words, we witnessed history. And in this season of good vibes and low expectations, I think it’s good to appreciate that first and foremost.
2. Accounting for Collin Sexton’s weaknesses
Despite Embiid’s performance, the Jazz had done a good enough job at shutting everyone else down to be able to stay within a possession of the Sixers — until this possession.
Yeah, Sexton has a chance to pass to a wide open Clarkson in the corner, but misses that pass in order to challenge a player having a top-10 game in NBA history at the rim. This is unwise decision making.
I got the chance to ask Sexton about that play after the game, and he said what happened was simple: he saw Embiid stalking him, and so had his eyes and mind on the center, rather than looking around the court.
But that also speaks to Sexton’s largest offensive weakness: his vision simply isn’t that of a winning point guard in the NBA. “Tunnel vision” is sometimes an incredibly appropriate phrase to describe Sexton’s mentality. That’s not to say Sexton’s contributions don’t have value — he probably outplayed Conley tonight — but it’s just tough to win when he misses significant passes like that and instead gets stuffed at the rim literally five times, as he did tonight.
One thing that the Jazz have done to mitigate that is play Sexton more often with Mike Conley in the backcourt in recent games. That makes Sexton the shooting guard, giving Conley playmaking duties. It’s been working, too: With Conley and Sexton on the floor together, the Jazz have outscored opponents by nine points per 100 possessions. With Sexton and Beasley as the backcourt, though, the Jazz are just about even, -0.3 points per 100 possessions worse than their opponents.
At the beginning of the season, though, Will Hardy preferred not to go to this Conley/Sexton configuration, because it means you have a really small backcourt. Both of those guys are 6-0 or 6-1, and while Sexton can be a little bit physical defensively, it’s still easy to score over the top of them.
We’ll have to see if Sexton improves at this over the course of the season. Conley obviously can’t be the Jazz’s starting point guard of the future due to his age. Sexton could be, or the Jazz could have to look for a longer-term replacement in the draft, trade market, or (least likely) free agency.
3. Spacing around Jarred Vanderbilt
I’m a little bit concerned about Jarred Vanderbilt. That’s a phrase that will shock some Jazz fans, given how beloved he already is in his Jazz career: he hustles like nobody’s business.
But watch how often Embiid even looks at his man — Vanderbilt — during this possession. Once? Maybe?
Or here — it’s so easy for P.J. Tucker to sink down and just help clog up the paint.
This is despite Vanderbilt shooting 50% from three on the season — but making just 0.6 per game. Clearly, teams don’t actually believe in that shooting threat at this point, and that makes sense, given how low of volume it has to be.
Right now, he has the worst plus-minus on the team, with a -4.8 net rating when he’s on the floor for the season. No other Jazz rotation player is has a net negative plus-minus.
But Vanderbilt is also so key to the Jazz’s chaos identity, so it’s tough to just say that other players should definitely play more. He’s also a legitimate prospect in his own way, at just 23 years old.
Again, it’s just something to watch. Involving Vanderbilt as a screener has worked relatively well against most teams so far, but we’ll see if more teams take the Sixers’ strategy of ignoring him more frequently on the defensive end.