Last night’s Jazz-Lakers game was a bit of a rollercoaster. From a quick burst of scoring in the first few minutes, to a stagnant second quarter, another great run in the third, and holding on at the end, emotions were all over the place. What were some of the Jazz learnings from a game with both teams severely depleted by the injury bug?
Dante Exum played more decisive and aggressive
Dante’s playing time has been inconsistent over the last couple of weeks. As frustrating as that has been for his fans, it’s likely been even more frustrating for him and seems to have had an effect on his play. How would he respond to a second start in a row with Hill sidelined by a sprained big toe1? As possibly the biggest Exum believer this side of Dan Clayton, I paid close attention to his assertiveness to start the game:
Outside of getting into foul trouble, Dante’s early play was encouraging. He took shots without hesitation, which is an important note considering his cautious play at times; luckily, he was 4-for-4 in the first half, including two threes. On some half-court sets, he was one of the facilitators of some great ball-movement, with his one assist coming on a quick pass to Gordon Hayward for a corner three. Another trend that was impressive was his jogging or running the ball up the court on a few plays, getting into the offense with 5-6 seconds off the clock rather than walking it up and dribbling before making the initial pass with 12 seconds left on the shot clock2.
The Others contributed
Luke Walton’s game plan for the Lakers was to take away shots from the main guys and make other guys hit their shots. Luckily for the Jazz, The Others contributed. Boris Diaw, Shelvin Mack, and Trey Lyles proved a strong supporting cast last night. While each has been inconsistent through the first quarter of the year, they put together solid games against a weakened Lakers team. Diaw especially was really enjoyable to watch, with excellent passing and a nice, varied mix of spot-up shooting and drive-and-dish plays. He played with a nice flow to his game and didn’t force anything.
Lyles did seem to press a bit in the first half, but was active whenever he was in the game. He seemed to rely too heavily on his pump-fake-at-the-three-point-line-and-drive-into-traffic move in the first half, but luckily switched it up in the second half and showed great variety with his moves: spot-up, no-hesitation, no-pump-fake three, a great up-and-under move around the basket, and a short baseline jumper. As he expands his repertoire of moves, with his skills and athleticism at his size, he’ll be a fantastic offensive player.
Mack has, for this author’s eyes, the biggest gap between the eye test and the stats test. What makes me cringe at times while watching doesn’t necessarily translate into bad stats or box scores. His (non-existent) defense notwithstanding, he played mostly under control, within himself, and contributed some great shots, including one three-pointer near the end of the first half to help slow down the Lakers’ momentum. His seven assists were a team-high for the night, as well.
When the great becomes routine
The incremental improvements Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gobert, and Rodney Hood have made from year to year aren’t spectacular, but if you look at the difference from their rookie years to now, they really are spectacular improvements. But since they’re each putting up great numbers consistently, it’s become easier to be somewhat numb to just how great the numbers are. It’s normal now. Routine. That consistency is exactly what we as fans have been clamoring for from these three foundational players, and they’re now delivering. Hayward has elevated his game this year to include regular 30-point games, and consistent 20-point games, while still contributing in every other possible way, as well. Gobert’s improved free-throw shooting keeps him on the floor when the game gets close and allows him to be more aggressive around the basket while maintaining his unparalleled presence on the defensive end. And Hood is the perfect complement to both, offering an outside shot and a drive-and-dish game that is very effective.
Those improvements are not insignificant. Last year this team struggled with getting down behind early in games, and fighting hard to get back, but losing close games in the last couple of minutes. That hasn’t been the problem this year.3 This year, they’ve been able to get out to leads and maintain them, and last night was a perfect example of that. Without Hayward, Gobert, and Hood being so good—and the solid supporting cast of Lyles, Diaw, and Mack—the Jazz wouldn’t have been out ahead of the Lakers so dramatically in the third quarter. That was the cushion they needed to win the game, and to do so pretty comfortably. This game would have been more tenuous last year, but the ’16-17 Jazz had it under control.
While short-handed, this team had the grit, talent (13-for-32 from 3-point land for 40.6%), and unselfish play (26 assists to the Lakers’ 15) to escape Los Angeles with a win. Yes, it was an expected win, but they still had to take it from the Lakers, a team with young talent and a great coach that might make for a fun rivalry in a few more years.