For an extended stretch Tuesday night, the Utah Jazz were deploying a lineup of Rudy Gay, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Simone Fontecchio, Johnny Juzang, and Kris Dunn.
Shockingly, that group did not play particularly well.
Then again, that was generally true of pretty much everyone who took the court for them in what turned out to be a 102-94 defeat to a Spurs team that came in having lost 16 straight games.
Sure, there were extenuating circumstances — the overall reduced depth since the trade deadline deal that saw the team ship out four rotation players while getting none back (after buying out Russell Westbrook); a left hamstring strain that’s kept new starting point guard Collin Sexton out since the All-Star break; a right thumb sprain that sidelined starting shooting guard Jordan Clarkson for Tuesday’s matchup …
The real question is, are such “extenuating circumstances” about to become a lot more commonplace?
There are 19 regular-season games remaining for the Jazz, who presently stand at 31-32 overall — ninth place in the Western Conference. After a plucky start to the season that had feel-good vibes given the overachievement of what was presumed to be a bottom-feeding roster, the team’s front office telegraphed its intention to dial up some extra losses as the schedule winds down, looking to maximize draft position.
You don’t trade your starting point guard, your sixth man, a rotation forward, and an occasional backup ball-handler and perimeter defender without getting anything substantive back if you’re looking to make a postseason push, after all.
After the loss, everyone said the right things, of course.
“Tonight was a very poor example by us of playing team basketball,” said coach Will Hardy. “I think we were very stubborn as a team tonight — we just refused to adjust. The game kept telling us over and over again what to do, and we sort of just refused.”
And what were they supposed to do that they didn’t?
“Pass. Pass. When you have the ball and there’s multiple people that are wearing a jersey not like yours in front of you, you should throw it to somebody else,” he explained, deadpan. “And we have 20 turnovers to prove that we just sort of refused to make the simple play over and over and over again.”
There were plenty of other damning numbers, too.
They shot 35.3% overall, 29.4% from 3, and just 66.7% from the line. In the fourth quarter, with the game on the line, they made just 5 of 20 shots and committed five turnovers.
Rookie center Walker Kessler took it hard, bemoaning the teams lack of movement and spacing and urgency, then singling himself out for poor fourth-quarter play, noting that a couple of foul calls against him helped to shift the momentum of the game for good. He would call the result “a disappointing loss.”
When Lauri Markkanen — who shot 7 of 11 before halftime and 2 for 10 after it — was asked afterward about what went wrong with the team’s offense, the All-Star forward didn’t seem too concerned about the long term.
“Just moving, sharing the ball. I think we got a little stagnant with isos and posting up and stuff like that, rather than our style of play — passing, running through screens, or play[ing] off-ball,” he said. “… Things that we can easily fix.”
The guys playing between the lines are clearly still invested in winning. But a rotation like the one featured Tuesday night is not particularly conducive to it.
Missing Clarkson and Sexton, and then Ochai Agbaji too (after he departed early with a right lower leg contusion following just 19 minutes of action) isn’t ideal.
But then, neither is having to rely on 10-day contract signee Dunn to play 26 minutes and keep the offense from absolutely cratering at times. Or having two-way contract-holder Johnny Juzang spend 15 minutes on the court in his NBA debut. The Jazz’s bench shot a collective 7 for 31 against the Spurs, and simply lacked scoring punch whenever Markkanen was on the bench.
They wouldn’t use that as a scapegoat, of course.
“Obviously, guys are out and some guys go down in the middle of the game, but again, we’re a team, there’s no excuses,” said Hardy. “These guys are professional basketball players.”
“All of our guys are NBA players. We’ve still got to figure out ways to score the ball and get stops,” added Markkanen. “Our style of play is pretty easy to hop on, playing four-out, five-out, so even though we haven’t played with that lineup before, we still have that standard that we’re trying to play at.”
It’s not inconceivable, though, that they’re finally now playing to the standard the front office wants.