Yes, the Jazz lost that game, 131-128.
But I thought they played even better than they did in their wins against woeful Portland and Memphis teams. Against a serious team, the Suns, shooting the lights out of the ball, the Jazz’s offense kept pace. They avoided turnovers (only eight tonight), found themselves with a chance to win the game, and in the end, were beaten by an all-time great in Kevin Durant hitting a deep three.
It’s worth talking about what’s making the offense hum: point guard play, and better spacing.
Point guard play
Keyonte George is by far the Jazz’s biggest story of the season so far.
Somehow, this barely-20-year-old is playing adult-in-the-room point guard, outshining his guard competitors to a ridiculous degree. No other guard on the Jazz’s roster is making this pass:
Come on, now. A left-handed push pass mid-dribble, right on time and on target? It’s such a good pass that essentially every fan within the camera’s lens here stands up in appreciation.
But it’s not just the flash, it’s the substance. George recognizes when one side of the court has a numerical advantage in transition, then finds that pass. He directs traffic in spacing. He had the veteran savvy “pump-fake and draw a foul” three. Multiple times tonight, he simply made eye contact with Jordan Clarkson, playing an advanced two-man game to set up the Jazz’s hottest offensive player.
“I say it all the time, JC needs space, Lauri needs space. When our best guys are in a rhythm, that’s when I feel like we are really, really good,” George said.
Give coach Will Hardy credit, too, for pushing George into the leadership role right away. Last week, the Jazz had a practice in which Hardy didn’t speak — instead, he asked George to get guys into position on both ends of the floor.
“It’s good for him to get used to using his voice. And it’s good for his teammates to get used to responding to him,” Hardy said. “I think over those two days, like he did gain some confidence with the group because he saw that his teammates were actually looking to him, they’re actually listening to him.”
The Jazz are seeing the dividends.
Here’s another truth: the Jazz have simply played with better spacing now than they were earlier on in the season.
What does that actually mean? It means that when Clarkson drives, he’s seeing fewer bodies — because the closest help defender is further away. It means that when Talen Horton-Tucker and Collin Sexton drive, they have simpler reads to make. It means that opponents can’t send help on Markkanen as quickly, giving him more opportunities to rise up or drive by defenders.
A game-changing play like this can happen, where Eric Gordon feels he has to help on George’s drive, because the second defender won’t necessarily be at the rim:
Some of the Jazz’s spacing improvement comes from players knowing where to be more often. Frankly, they’re just playing less of Horton-Tucker and Sexton, who can make questionable spacing choices. Neither are prolific shooters, either. Ochai Agbaji, meanwhile, is playing more, and is a dangerous shooter.
And some of it, unfortunately, comes from the fact that the Jazz aren’t playing Walker Kessler due to his elbow injury.
Kessler can create vertical spacing by rolling to the rim and finishing lobs, demanding help. But in the Jazz’s first few weeks, it wasn’t much of an actual threat, because the Jazz’s point guards weren’t lobbing well, and Kessler wasn’t finishing well.
Furthermore, John Collins was messing things up pretty frequently. His desire to be a versatile power forward meant that he was cutting in the paint and attacking the glass, actions that sometimes just brought defensive help to the ballhandler. Now, though, he’s staying spaced when he should, and rolling to the rim after setting screens as the center. Again, some of his poor positioning was offensive unfamiliarity with a new system. And some of it was simply being playing center, where he’s probably more likely to succeed.
It leads to a really important question: what happens when Kessler comes back?
“We’re definitely on the fence as a staff,” Hardy said.
Interesting. In what way?
“We’re not exactly sure when Walker will be back, but it’s gonna be a big decision for us. What we do with the lineups — you know, we always get caught up talking about the starters — but I think we’re just going to have to figure out how to blend it all together. Nothing’s really off the table at this point. ... Offensively, you know, we have seen a pretty good flow right now. It’s been good for John. But Walker also hasn’t played a ton with Keyonte. So it’s hard to say right now.”
The decision is, essentially, who do you bench when Kessler returns? If you bench Kessler, you stick with a starting lineup that has played well, but reduce playing time for an important young player — notably, also reducing his time with the other building blocks on the roster, Markkanen and George. If you bench Collins, you risk upsetting an outspoken veteran who has started all but three games in his career since his rookie season. It also means playing him more with Horton-Tucker and Sexton, who are not very good lob throwers.
And if you bench Agbaji, you risk losing the spacing advantages that have clearly changed the level of play of the team.
If it were me making the decision ... I’d bench Agbaji, to see if the George/Clarkson/Markkanen/Collins/Kessler lineup can work. They’re probably your five best players, and the combination has an intriguing mix of offense and defense. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, then I’d explore benching Kessler or Collins; and I’d probably bench Collins first — prioritizing Kessler’s development is more likely to play a role in the next contending Jazz team than keeping Collins happy, in my estimation.