The Triple Team: The Jazz double-teamed Damian Lillard — Lillard and the Blazers made them pay

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) drives to the basket against Utah Jazz guard Johnny Juzang, left, and Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) during an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, March 22, 2023, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Jeff Swinger)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 127-115 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Probably just too aggressive on the defensive end tonight

There have been times when the Jazz have been extremely aggressive in their defensive schemes against one-star teams, and it’s worked out well. We saw such an example last Friday night, when the Jazz sent doubles and help to Jayson Tatum from all over the court, and came out of it holding him to 15 points and getting a win.

Tonight... it was a bust. I understand the strategy of making the likes of Trendon Watford and Shaedon Sharpe beat you, but the Jazz didn’t execute super well.

Some of this is simply because Damian Lillard was better at handling it than Tatum. Whereas Tatum seemed to accept the double-teams, then take a beat to make the right read, frequently Lillard would pass while the second help defender was still coming over. That makes sense: Lillard’s a PG and Tatum isn’t.

But the biggest problem was where that pass was allowed to go. Hardy said after the game his biggest beef with the performance was how the escape passes weren’t forced to the perimeter, but instead the middle of the floor.

For example, Lillard beats the double team super quickly here.

But Hardy would say that, in this case, Lauri Markkanen needs to sink down to prevent the pass to Nurkic at the free-throw line over every other defensive responsibility. The Jazz can live with Watford at the perimeter with the ball. They can’t live with Nurkic in a 3-on-2, with a wide open lane down below.

Most NBA players are highly capable of making decisions directly in the middle of the floor with a man advantage. But then in those situations, it’s the other three guys coming after the double team that need to offer more resistance — in particular, by locking down the middle of the paint.

Furthermore, either Kelly Olynyk or Ochai Agbaji, probably the latter, need to sink in earlier to prevent the easy rim run from Nurkic.

On the next play, they actually do that here. Even though Nurkic makes this, it’s probably a shot you can live with — though I’d prefer Olynyk raise his arms and contest instead of trying to draw a charge.

Watching the film, I do give the Blazers credit for making quick passes. But where the Jazz were flying around earlier in the week in the zone, today they were a little bit slow in helping the helper, and it cost them easy basket after easy basket.

Also: the man defense played a lot better. The zone allowed 0.98 points in half-court man, and 1.28 in half-court zone, per Synergy. The zone isn’t always going to be the go-to move, even though the Jazz found success with it vs. Boston and Sacramento.

2. Walker Kessler against Damian Lillard

Walker Kessler deserves a ton of props for the Jazz’s recent success.

However, he’s really struggled against Damian Lillard this season. Lillard’s an All-NBA first team guard, and has had another tremendous year. He’s such an efficient scorer from all three levels, and any success Portland’s had has basically been down to his contributions. Everyone struggles against him.

But Kessler didn’t make much of an impact at all on Lillard tonight, and just got beat pretty frequently. Lillard just gets Kessler enough off balance here to get an easy lane to the rim, and old man Rudy Gay with a bad back isn’t going to help in time.

It’s tough, though, because if you give him too much space, Lillard will just do this:

Here, I thought Kessler was in good physical position near the 3-point line... and then was just soft in allowing the drive.

That was the play I was most disappointed in from Kessler. I understand wanting not to foul, but this is a bit of a capitulation. He’s super young, and a tremendous defender, but this is a play where he’ll want to watch the film and learn from it.

Obviously, not actually worried about Kessler moving forward, and it’s almost exciting to see him struggle at times, because it means he has so much room to grow.

3. Markkanen turnovers

Lauri Markkanen was just about the only good part of tonight’s game, basically carrying the Jazz to staying within any sort of striking distance. He finished with 40 points on 14-23 shooting, no big deal, on a night when essentially no one else was any sort of a threat. Impressive.

He did have four turnovers. Four is not a huge number, either — you’re definitely more irked with Olynyk’s five TOs than Markkanen’s four. But Markkanen is the biggest piece of the Jazz’s future, and so I like zooming in on him and ways he can get even better.

Here’s the video of all four turnovers.

I have zero problem with turnover No. 2... I thought Kessler was fouled on that play.

But the other three turnovers are from live-ball dribbles into traffic.

• First, he just dribbles the ball off his foot.

• Second, he loses the ball on that high-dribble move that’s getting so popular around the NBA.

• Third, he loses a sense of where the defenders are while he’s dribbling with his back turned, leading to an easy steal.

Markkanen’s so tall that’s it’s harder to be a dribble-driver for him than other players — there’s simply more of a chance for things to go wrong with a higher release point on the dribble. If he’s looking for improvement points this offseason, improving the handle just a little in traffic could help him out.

Honestly, though, if he just maintains this level of play next year, I’ll be pretty darn happy. He’s been absolutely terrific.