One way to look at the Utah Jazz’s 5-point loss to the Clippers on Saturday is that they were simply running out of bodies. By game’s end, Utah was down four of its best six or seven players.
Rudy Gobert is still on the mend from an MCL sprain, and Derrick Favors’ back flared up on Saturday afternoon. Those are two of Utah’s big three, and they’re already without 2014-15 starter Dante Exum (ACL) for the foreseeable future. That’s tough enough, but early in the game, the NBA’s second-leading bench scorer, Alec Burks, wound up in a heap in the lane.
Being down four key guys would slow down any team, and head coach Quin Snyder was forced to be creative with lineups. But that’s too easy a shortcut to describe this one. Injuries aside, Utah was in a position to win. And somehow, they snatched a 104-109 defeat from the jaws of victory.
For starters, L.A. was also without its best player, with an announcement coming earlier in the day about Blake Griffin’s pulled hamstring. And beyond the “war of attrition” aspect, Utah simply had the inside lane and gave it up. Multiple times.
To their credit, they fought back impressively after L.A. went up 10 in the third quarter. Joe Ingles, Trey Burke and Raul Neto each hit threes in a 22-8 stretch in Utah’s favor. At that point, it looked as though this young team, even without Favors, Gobert, Burks and Exum, had weathered the worst and might survive. But they gave away yet another lead, this one with under five minutes to play.
L.A. scored 24 points in just the final five minutes, including coming away with points on 10 of their final 11 possessions. If that sounds like terrible defense… it was. Utah was frequently sloppy on its switches and, with no Favors or Gobert waiting in the paint to bail the Jazz out of their wing mistakes, it got ugly fast. At one point the Clippers ran the same exact play four times in a row and got something out of it each time. During that stretch, Jazz players got blown up on screens, made phantom switches, showed tentatively and otherwise just looked like a team that didn’t know what it was doing on defense.
Sure, some of those lineups were cobbled together out of necessity and haven’t had a lot of time together to perfect chemistry, must less in clutch situations. But the defense was, to put it mildly, pretty worrisome in those final 300 seconds, when Utah’s D-Rating rocketed to 225.6.
Here are some other important themes and storylines from the night.
It was hard to tell exactly what happened to Burks when he hit the deck in the final minute of the first half. Paul Pierce — who seemed to be upset at the referees even though they settled on only a common foul after video review — clotheslined a driving Burks. He landed with his left leg under him, and with his surgically repaired left shoulder bearing much of the initial impact. His head also hit, and as he lay there trying to collect himself, he appeared to be trembling, disoriented and almost heaving. Teammates tried to help him up, and he stopped halfway up, turned over on all fours and continued to either fight for breath or try to hold back heaves.
Point is, it was hard to initially tell exactly what was wrong with Alec — knee, ankle, shoulder, concussion, wind?
Word from the locker room afterward is that the main concern is around Burks’ ankle. There’s no initial diagnosis, but the acrobatic scorer was seen wearing a boot following the loss, and Andy Larsen had this to offer about the tone of the dialogue related to #10.
Jazz players seemed very concerned about Alec Burks. The concussion doesn’t seem to be the problem, Trey Burke said he seemed fine mentally.
— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) December 27, 2015
If it is as serious an injury as some of the Jazz players’ quotes seemed to suggest, that’s a huge blow for the already ailing Jazz. Burks accounts for 14 points a night, but his absence would carry an even heavier toll than that. Already, Utah doesn’t go terribly deep with high-caliber rotation talent. They could be getting Gobert back relatively soon, but it undoubtedly weakens the arsenal if Utah has to play an extended stretch without one of its most creative scorers.
Strong in Defeat
Utah wasted some good individual performances on this loss, particularly by Gordon Hayward, Rodney Hood and Neto.
Hayward was aggressive early and never really let up. He finished with 28 points on just 13 shots1, and he also nabbed 6 rebounds, 5 assists and a couple of steals. He wasn’t blameless on the late defensive breakdowns, as he had his share of missed switches and token shows, but his overall game was precisely what Utah needs to beat a playoff team without Favors and Gobert.
That said, Snyder chose to call on Hood for most of the late-game ball-handling and play-making duties, and the second-year pro didn’t disappoint either. After a quiet first three quarters, Hood exploded in the fourth. His 13 points in that frame included some really great moves.
Neto’s excellence was a little subtler at times, but he had a nice line, too. Nine points, four assists and three steals pretty much qualify for “playing with house money” status in terms of what Utah expects from its rookie starter on a night-to-night basis. But where he was really solid was on D, where he mostly stayed in front of superstar Chris Paul until that fateful final stretch when Utah’s switch-everything defensive pattern led to several mistakes.
Still, nights like what Hayward, Hood and Neto provided will put the Jazz in a position to win on a lot of nights. If they had played even passable defense in the final four minutes tonight, it probably would have led to a win against the Clips.
Not to harp too much on that end of the floor, but an undeniable storyline as I look back across the stretches where Utah fell apart is that the guys who have a reputation as defensive specialists were often the culprits of notable defensive breakdowns.
Paint patroller Jeff Withey was a step late all night, and repeatedly got caught without knowing whether to come out to the ball or stay home. Lob City instills that kind of fear in a lot of interior defenders, and Withey definitely appeared to be frozen in time on more than a handful of plays. At one point, Snyder seemed to sub Withey out punitively, stopping him on his way to his seat for what appeared to be an, um, constructive dialogue2.
Elijah Millsap — pressed into extended duty because of Burks’ absence — brought his usual hard-nosed play but, as is often the case, that came with a dose of overaggression that cost him the high ground. His D-Rating in 10 minutes tonight was a team-worst 163.4, and that’s without playing at all during those fateful final five. He just commits way too much out in areas where it’s not smart to commit like that, and smart guys — the Clips have multiple savvy dudes like that — can exploit that.
But Trevor Booker might take the cake tonight. His late-game defensive decision-making was head-scratching to say the least, and his D-Rating (139.7) was the second worst. Again, nobody was blameless in conceding 24 points in five minutes, but I rewatched all 10 of L.A.’s scoring possession from that run, and nobody had more “what exactly is he doing?” moments than Book. Here’s a sampling:
In Booker’s defense, I don’t know what Snyder was calling for on those plays. For example, on the Luc three, maybe that’s the hard hedge Snyder wanted there. It’s also fair to mention that he’s being asked to defend the five, a position he’s not really equipped to battle at.
But at least on this night, the Jazz’s alleged hustle guys left them wanting a bit on the defensive end.