Monday night’s loss was a bit of a weird one for the Utah Jazz.
Their 117-103 defeat at the hands of the Kevin Durant-less Suns was their fourth straight, and one which dropped them to 35-40 overall on the season, and two games back of the final play-in spot as they hold on tenuously to a postseason run.
Beyond that, it was a difficult result to accept because there were no egregious mistakes, no singular smoking gun they can point to and say, “That is the reason we lost.” Then again, in some ways, that also makes the loss a bit easier to digest, knowing there were no leviathan errors in need of correction.
“I feel for our guys tonight,” coach Will Hardy said afterward.
Indeed, in a noteworthy sign of progress, he spent much of Monday night’s postgame session running down not the things that went wrong, but rattling off the components of the game he was happy with.
There was effort on both ends. The offense did a good job moving the ball. The defense did a nice job protecting the paint and the rim.
Phoenix didn’t go wild from 3 (just 11 of 36) or run up a huge advantage in fast-break points (both teams had 15 apiece), or second-chance points (15-13 for the Suns), or dominate the boards (a slight 49-47 edge for Phoenix).
“You can only control what you can control,” noted rookie center Walker Kessler, who racked up 18 points (on 8-for-10 shooting), eight rebounds, and seven blocks. “… I think that understanding that as long as we maintain who we are and not let that discourage us, and maintain the character of this team [is what’s important]. We show up every night, play our tails off, and never give up.”
Which is not to say Monday’s game was a pristine performance without fault.
The first quarter saw them commit eight of the 19 fouls they’d have all game, handing Phoenix nine of the 22 free throws they’d get for the contest. As a result, Devin Booker scored 18 of his 24 points in that opening period.
“A few too many fouls, especially the first quarter — I think that’s how Booker really kind of made an imprint on the game early,” Hardy pointed out.
Then, at the beginning of the fourth quarter, Phoenix’s second unit thoroughly outplayed Utah’s, turning a three-point advantage into a 10-point one in about a minute and a half.
Several members of the Jazz acknowledged that’s a recurring problem area so long as multiple rotation pieces are out — Jordan Clarkson, Collin Sexton, Simone Fontecchio, and Rudy Gay all missed the game, leading to substantial minutes for the likes of Juan Toscano-Anderson, Damian Jones, and Johnny Juzang.
“I think it’s just gaining more chemistry, just playing together more. We have a lot of newer faces in that second unit,” said Jones. “… [We have to] just learn on the fly. At this point, there’s not a lot of practice that we can do to get that chemistry.”
Hardy conceded as much, noting that group simply doesn’t have a ton of reps together, and are unlikely to have much opportunity to work out the kinks, considering there are but seven regular-season games remaining, and the next three are on the road.
As a result, the coach is considering making some tweaks to the rotation in a bid to lessen the problem.
“We’ve got to figure out offensively what we’re going to do with that group to try to generate some easier baskets,” Hardy said. “… Some of that’s gonna take a little bit of time — but we don’t have time. So we’ve got to figure out a way as a staff to help that group generate some better shots, understanding that some of it [is] when you have this many new guys playing together in that group, it’s tough. So we may need to look at changing up the substitution patterns a little bit and trying to to mix that group some.”
Honestly, though, in his view, the biggest impediment to victory Monday night is simply that the ball didn’t go in enough.
He mostly liked the way the offense was executed. He was proud of the preparation in the lead-up and the effort in the game itself.
Neither of which could compensate for shanking a few easy layups and going 9 of 36 from deep.
“We could not throw the ball in the ocean for long stretches of time,” said Hardy. “We missed some chippies around the rim we normally make, we missed some wide-open 3s, and that can wear on you as a team.
“… I’m frustrated for them because I think they came into tonight’s game with a good mindset, I think they tried to move the ball, I think we went through long stretches of time where we couldn’t make shots, and that tends to make people antsy,” he added. “And it’s hard. You hear people say all the time, ‘It’s a make or miss league at times.’ I’m not always a believer in that, but there are moments where the ball does need to go in a few times in order to help you regain the rhythm of the game. It’s hard to play a game when you’re going through long stretches of not scoring.”
Kessler agreed it was frustrating having good looks that didn’t go in.
“You’re gonna have bad nights. That’s expected,” he said. “I just don’t like to lose in general, so every loss is not a pleasant experience. But [the idea is] just not let it get you down too much.”