The Triple Team: Jazz fall short defensively vs. Knicks, though there were bright spots

New York Knicks center Isaiah Hartenstein (55) and Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler (24) vie for a rebound during the second half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 126-120 loss to the New York Knicks from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Starting defense, finishing defense

Two aspects of the Jazz’s defense was subpar tonight.

• First, their transition defense was poor. The Knicks had a 181 offensive rating on transition plays tonight... that won’t cut it. After a Jazz miss, if the Knicks pushed on a defensive rebound, they had a 250 offensive rating. 250!

It’s a matter of inches. Take this play, for example: Josh Hart’s clearly sprinting down the floor, while Talen Horton-Tucker is trying to time his interception so that he can meet him at the rim. But if THT sprinted, he might be able to cut him off earlier, preventing the rim shot attempt in the first place.

• When the Jazz did force a Knicks miss, they couldn’t get rebounds. Once again, the opposition’s offensive rebound rate was 40% or higher. And the Knicks killed those opportunities, too, with a 146 offensive rating there.

It really is just about finding the other team’s offensive rebounding threats, and putting a body on them. Hartenstein is outside the 3-point line when this shot is put up... but gets the offensive rebound around Udoka Azubuike anyway.

If the Jazz just got into a halfcourt defensive situation, they were great, allowing only a 91 offensive rating. But by starting and finishing their defensive possessions poorly, all of that good work was canceled out. Of course, that’s been a season-long trend.

2. Talen Horton-Tucker?

Talen Horton-Tucker played a big role in the Jazz’s win last night, and played really well again tonight. He scored 23 points, shooting 8-12 from the field, and had seven assists after getting eight yesterday. He also only had one turnover.

The number one swing skill for THT is whether or not he’s making good decisions on whether to shoot or pass. If he’s forcing layups in traffic, he can get you in extreme amounts of trouble. Those shots are often blocked, leading to fast breaks. If they’re not blocked, they often lead to THT being on the floor, leading to a 5-on-4 the other way.

On the other hand, if he’s making early decisions like this? It’s magnificent.

I also think he was a significant defensive contributor tonight, using his size and his length to bother players on that end.

Now, here’s the truth: even if you’re this good at attacking the rim offensively, and a quality playmaker, and a bothersome defender — it’s still just going to be hard for Horton-Tucker to be a playoff contributor if he can’t shoot better than 25% from three.

In the playoffs, teams will scout him and just leave him open, and he’ll need to be able to knock them down. Here’s the list of NBA guards who have shot under 30% from three in the last five years — count how many playoff contributors you see. Ben Simmons and Russell Westbrook have honestly been played off the court at times. The Nets were really hurt with Bruce Brown out there. I suppose Shaun Livingston helped the Warriors in their title runs... though he was paired with two or three of the best shooters of all time.

If he figures the shot out to an acceptable level, he has the chance to be a really helpful NBA player. Until then, his ceiling is basically as regular-season minutes cruncher against teams that don’t heavily scout.

3. Jumpy Walker Kessler

I thought there were times when Walker Kessler looked like Mitchell Robinson out there tonight.

What do I mean by that? Robinson is the Knicks fourth-year center — he was out tonight due to a broken thumb — who really impressed Knicks fans in his rookie season with his ability to block shots. In his rookie season, he led the NBA with 4.3 blocks per 36 minutes; no one else in the league came closer than 3.4.

But here’s the thing: Robinson was hunting blocks to the occasional detriment of the Knicks defense. When you jump for a block, it can actually put your team in a tough defensive position sometimes. Obviously, if you bite on a pump fake and your opponent draws a foul, that’s one bad outcome. If you bother your opponent’s shot, but can’t get back in rebounding position, that also ends up hurting your team.

Blocks are extremely valuable plays, but so too are free-throws and putbacks, things the Jazz struggled with allowing tonight.

Take this play for example. Honestly, how close does Kessler really get to blocking this shot? Not particularly close, I don’t think. But because he’s jumping for the ball, he leaves his man, Isaiah Hartenstein... and he gets the offensive rebound and the very easy putback.

Now, I have faith in Kessler learning to do better here. But much of the Jazz’s woes tonight were because of his rookie mistakes, and he’ll want to clean them up to be the player he can be — and for the Jazz to be the team they can be.

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