On the one hand, the Utah Jazz are in fine shape overall, returning home for Game 3 of their first-round NBA Playoff series with the 1-1 split that road playoff teams aim for. Speaking in general terms, their trip to Los Angeles was a success.
But Tuesday changed the tone of the series, for sure. In the opener, the Jazz gave a spirited performance and overcame the unexpected exit of star center Rudy Gobert. But Game 2 was ugly at times for Utah, who couldn’t seem to find a recipe to deny the Clippers whatever they wanted in the paint. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Utah gave up 27 buckets in the restricted area, a season high for the Clippers, and 15 of those were uncontested. That simply won’t cut it if the Jazz are to advance.
Even though they technically “stole” home court advantage with that first win, the Clippers still own the right to host a hypothetical Game 7. For the Jazz to avoid that and make full use of the advantage they stole away in the series opener, they’d need to win three of the next four games. And they’re not winning three of four by allowing 60 paint points a night and 79% shooting in the restricted area.
In other words, the Jazz do need to find some adjustments that will work. Postgame comments and film might give us a clue what the Jazz can try when the series resumes on Friday. Basically it comes down to two things: execute the game plan better or try a different one.
The first question Gordon Hayward fielded after sitting down at the postgame podium was about the Jazz’s pick-and-roll defense. He started his answer by saying, “I think we’ve gotta be better executing our game plan.”
That’s the most polite way possible of saying that there were guys who could have stuck to the defensive scheme better. He wasn’t calling anybody out, and by the way, the sentiment is pretty non-controversial; NO team makes it through 48 minutes without an occasional slip-up relative to the defensive game plan. But the fact that Hayward brought that up right out of the gate suggests that perhaps the game plan they brought to the gym on Tuesday might have worked with a bit more adherence.
In a word, that game plan was containment. It was a very Chris Paul-focused scheme, as the Jazz were committed to showing the guard extra bodies when he came around a pick. When Gobert plays, he has an elite ability to wall off the drive of a ball handler and still get back (more often than not) to defend the roller. Derrick Favors just doesn’t have that mobility right now.
That’s not a knock, either; Rudy is one of a handful of guys who have the length and agility to do that. Favors is really good defensively, but asking him to show hard on Chris Paul at the right elbow and then be back on the left block a fraction of a second later to challenge DeAndre Jordan on a lob is not realistic even when he’s his usual self. Jeff Withey and Boris Diaw have similar limitations, in that they exist in this part of the time-space continuum and not the alternate reality the freakish Gobert occupies.
“We just weren’t able to contain the ball,” coach Quin Snyder had remarked just moments earlier from the same spot.
Still, for any of those defenders, the show-and-get-back tactic is easier when their help on Paul is momentary. The guys defending Paul could be more aggressive at fighting their way back in front of the eight-time All-NBA guard. That left the bigs in a position where they couldn’t leave Paul, and the roll men consequently had it a bit too easy.
George Hill doesn’t technically blow the scheme here, but he and others can’t wind up trailing Paul whenever a screen is set, as that requires the big men to fully commit. Hill could help the Jazz out a bunch on plays like these by working harder to take his man back from the big, or by fighting through the screen in the first place.
Fighting through screens all night is hard. In particular, the Clippers most common pickers — Jordan and Blake Griffin — are very physical and handsy, and they ensure there’s contact. But Hill has to work harder to not wind up getting wiped right out of the play by screens.
That’s easier said than done. “You’re talking about probably the best pick-and-roll player in the league,” Snyder said. “So there’s gonna be situations where he’s able to exploit you… That’s a tall order.”
Snyder also mentioned containment on simple drive plays where there is no pick at all. Joe Johnson got beat twice by Paul Pierce — who’s about a gajillion years old — driving right around him from a standstill. Those are hard plays to stomach for the Jazz, who need to make some hay when bench guys are in for LA.
Shelvin Mack in particular has a bad habit of basically inviting guys to drive right by him. This has been a season-long trend for Mack, who attaches himself to a guy’s hip way out where he has very little chance of staying in front. It’s hard work getting up and under1 a guy out there, but good effort doesn’t always mean good defense. In Mack’s case, he just doesn’t have the lateral quickness to stay in front of a guy out there. So once he cozies up, the guy will just beat him off the dribble, not even needing a pick. The guy either scores easily or the whole defense gets compromised2.
It really hurts to see Raymond Felton picking apart the Jazz, and it’s going to be hard for Utah to win if they can’t make up ground during the Felton minutes. So far the Clipper reserve has outplayed Mack in the series.
Bottom line: if the defensive strategy is designed to contain the ball, the Jazz perimeter defenders have to make a better effort to, well, contain the ball.
There’s nothing that says the Jazz are definitely going to approach Game 3 that way. They could decide it’s more important to choke the roll man, even at the expense of conceding open looks to Paul.
It’s a strategy that comes with a cost, as Paul is one of the best midrange shooters of this generation. But it can work. When the Jazz beat the Clips in the regular season, they did it largely by focusing on limiting the bigs. They switched selectively on picks3, they brought in a third defender to stunt the roll and they got the big men free earlier so they could get back and contest on Blake and DeAndre, even at the expense of CP3 pull-ups.
Of course, the Jazz had Gobert for that game, and that makes a difference. But you can see a variety of guys chipped in on the plays in that video.
Paul scored 33 in that game, largely the result of the Jazz scurrying back to P&R divers. But the Jazz could live with his big night because neither Jordan nor Griffin ever really got going. I imagine we’ll see the Jazz switch things up to this type of defense at some point, even if just to give LA a different look. Coaches always adjust their defensive strategy over the course of playing a team 5-7 straight times, so no matter what we see specifically on Friday night, expect the Jazz to tinker.
“We’ve just gotta find other ways to protect the paint,” Snyder confirmed. “That’s the challenge.”
Here are some other adjustments they can consider heading into Game 3.
This isn’t so much an adjustment as a decision. Too often on Tuesday, the Jazz let the Clippers dictate to them. This play is one example:
— Mike Prada (@MikePradaSBN) April 19, 2017
When the Jazz get a switch they like, they often have the ball handler pass the ball and then get it back to attack with a head of steam. The Clippers obviously knew that, so as soon as Hayward got rid of the ball, Jordan hounded him so he couldn’t get it back.
Heady play by DJ, but the curious part is why Hayward just decided to be OK with that. As grabby as Jordan was being here, Hayward might have gotten Jordan his sixth foul if he had fought back against the pressure. Even if he wasn’t that lucky, he could have gotten back in the play on a possession that ended with a pretty terrible look. The Jazz just can’t let the Clippers decide who is and isn’t going to be involved in a play.
This is really an extension of the last point, as the Jazz were generally too timid about pursuing rebounds.
The overall rebounding margin wasn’t crazy (+6 for LA), but Utah managed to reel in just three of its own 34 reboundable misses. You won’t find many teams who won a road playoff game with an offensive rebound percentage that low.
The Jazz prefer not to send anybody but their bigs to the offensive glass, preferring that the rest of the team focus on transition defense. With Gobert hurt and Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw not great at rebounding, this chore has really been left to Favors and Withey for now. They’re the only two Jazz men to log a single offensive rebound on Tuesday (Withey had two).
A few people have asked me since Tuesday why no hack-a-DJ strategy was used. After all, Jordan was 9-for-11 from the field and is terrible from the line.
Keep in mind that I’m 2,500 miles from LA and I haven’t spoken to Snyder about this. But here’s my guess on why he opted not to use it. Not only is the math on this close, but more importantly I think it’s about the Jazz’s ethos. The Jazz pride themselves as being a defensive team. I’m not sure Snyder likes the message it sends to guys when they concede freebies instead of trusting their identity and schemes.
And then there’s the math. Let’s say DJ shoots his season percentage and gets one on every trip while hack-a is used4. The Jazz’s defense allowed the Clippers 1.09 points per possession on the evening. Some have said, “Even if Jordan makes one, it would be better than the 2 and 3-point possessions the Jazz gave up,” but on average, that’s not what the Jazz were doing. On average, the Clips got 1.09 out of every trip, and considerably less than that if you exclude fastbreak possessions5.
In other words, you’re not really saving points if you just grab Jordan on a halfcourt play and he makes one. Plus, the decision could ostensibly impact other parts of the game:
Bottom line: the math on this is far from conclusive when you weigh the impacts to other areas of the game. And philosophically, I don’t think it’s what Snyder wants the Jazz to be. I wouldn’t be shocked to see it used if the Jazz just need to lengthen a game at some point, or if they start hacking him when he’s in a position to score. But beyond that, they’re not just going to wrap him up on every possession.