The Triple Team: Jazz struggle to defend the Thunder again; Jordan Clarkson sets career high in assists

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) loses control of the ball while defended by Utah Jazz guard Johnny Juzang, left, in the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, March 5, 2023, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 130-119 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Jazz struggle to guard OKC’s unique offense

The Thunder lead the league by a gazillion in drives per game:

Their offense is relentless. They’re just going to keep driving the paint all night long — primarily with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but also with Josh Giddey, Jalen Williams, Lu Dort, and so on. And ideally, the Jazz would be well-suited to defend such a team. After all, they have Walker Kessler, a terrific rim protector, to ideally stop those paint trips short, and force some floaters or tougher layup finishes.

But in the last couple of games, the Jazz’s defense was poor. In the first game, the biggest defensive problem was the turnovers; the Jazz didn’t really give themselves a chance to guard in the half court.

Tonight, the biggest problem was too many fouls — Gilgeous-Alexander took 19 free-throws himself. That’s too many!

Take this little 2-3 minute stretch at the end of the second quarter. With Oklahoma City already in the bonus, the Jazz just committed foul after foul to gift OKC some points. It’s the full gamut of what happens here: unwise blocking fouls, transition helps, overzealous strip takes, and so on.

If you foul this many times, it’s just hard to compete defensively. That little stretch helped send the Thunder to halftime with 70 points, already up by nearly 20.

2. Johnny Juzang: potentially helpful?

Johnny Juzang is most famous for his NCAA tournament exploits as a junior at UCLA — if he had come out after that year, he almost certainly would have been drafted. Instead, he struggled with injuries and his shot in his senior year, and went undrafted. The Jazz picked him up on a two-way contract, and he’s spent most of the season in the G-League.

His G-League stats are interesting: he’s averaged 20 points per game in their regular season, mostly though the 3-point line, where he takes a majority of his shots. He’s shot 38% from deep — pretty darn good on that volume. The secondary skills, unfortunately, haven’t really been there. The assists, rebounds, turnovers, and honestly, interior scoring hasn’t been quite as effective as he’s made the transition to the pros.

So you can see where he’s going to have to cut it as an NBA player. The 3-point shot will be the primary weapon, and then, like you hope with Simone Fontecchio, he’ll have to prove the rest of the stuff is good enough for him to stay on the floor.

Tonight, he scored 11 points, thanks to 3-6 shooting from deep; he also made his only 2-point shot, a contested stepback.

I liked the variety of 3-point shots he took. Most were standstill, but he showed a couple of wrinkles. He took one 29-footer, but this one was good recognition of the defender going under the screen and a smooth pull-up:

I’m glad he’s getting more minutes as the season winds down. He’s going to benefit immensely from the NBA experience, and it’ll give him the best chance possible of having an NBA career.

3. Jordan Clarkson’s highlight-reel assists

I’ve been doing draft research a lot earlier than normal this year, for obvious reasons. And sometimes, it’s fun to imagine evaluating NBA talent in that same way.

In particular, imagine this was the first Jordan Clarkson game you ever watched.

You would be hyped. Clarkson had a career high 12 assists tonight and made multiple passes that are just rare for any player to pull off – passes that frankly, no other player on the Jazz’s roster can make.

(Love the G-League still making highlight videos about Clarkson and claiming him as a developmental story despite the fact he played only five games there.)

That assist in at the 20 second mark above is absolutely bonkers. Go up with his right, then switch hands midair, bring the ball to his left out wide, and push it out to Olynyk in the corner at the perfect height? It’s awesome.

At 45 seconds: a no-look lob pass to Kessler on the move? Another wow play.

At 1:30? The drive, and the read mid-air to whirl it to Kelly Olynyk 25 feet behind him? Absurdly good.

If that was the game you watched of Clarkson’s, you’d think he was set up to be one of the league leaders in assists. If you saw an NBA Draft prospect who did this stuff, he’s probably a lottery selection. Instead, Clarkson was a second-round pick, and he’s been known throughout his career as a guy who probably calls his number a little bit too much — a sixth-man gunner.

For me, it’s one of those moments when you remember that so much of NBA player value is the archetype that they find themselves in. Whether it’s by their own choice, a coach’s choice, or the virtue of the teammates they’re playing with, a lot of players can make it work in multiple ways. This version of Clarkson, when he’s dishing like this, makes him a drastically better player — and a whole lot of fun to watch.