Jazz Takeaways From Early Northwest Battles

November 6th, 2017 | by Steve Godfrey

Mitchell and the Jazz bench have been key in Utah’s early battles with division rivals. (Melissa Majchrzak via utahjazz.com)

When NBA experts predicted which teams would make the Western Conference playoffs in the bloodbath battleground, all five Northwest Division teams were regarded as potential playoff candidates. Nearly three weeks into the season, the Utah Jazz’s division indeed looks like the best in the NBA: several projection systems still have all five as likely playoff teams. The Jazz have played each of their four division rivals so far, going 3-1. It’s a small sample size to be sure, but Utah’s early action in the division has provided some key findings about how they may compete with their Northwest foes.

Refresher: Four Divisional Throw-Downs

The Jazz opened the season against Denver, winning 106-96 and spoiling the fun for the new-look Nuggets.

Utah then went toe-to-toe with Minnesota, in Ricky Rubio’s return against his former squad, and lost 100-97 after some missed calls and crucial turnovers.

The Thunder came to Salt Lake on October 21 and the Jazz used a third-quarter blitz (and some Joe Ingles trash talk) to pull away in a 96-87 win.

Lastly, on November 1, the Blazers visited Salt Lake and put up an engaging, back-and-forth battle until Rudy Gobert blocked Damian Lillard to force OT, which rookie Donovan Mitchel and Spanish hearth-throb Rubio dominated en route to a 112-103 victory.

Holding Down A Star

In the modern NBA, teams must have a dynamic duo or even a triple threat in order to compete with the Golden State super team out west. Everyone and their mom added a star to their roster in order to make a dent instead of being Warrior roadkill.

Denver packs an inside punch by adding Paul Millsap alongside Nikola Jokic, Oklahoma City added Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to compliment Russel Westbrook, and Minnesota plugged in Jimmy Butler to an already potent tandem of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.

The Jazz, however, just added defense to break these studs up.

Gobert and Epke Udoh are patrolling the paint, both placing in the top ten of blocked shots in the NBA, and Derrick Favors does his duty to help out, too. While Gobert is the central force, the wings have played an important role in locking guys up. Mitchell has been playing hard, and Ingles does what Ingles does. The surprise, perhaps, has been Thabo Sefolosha who is averaging the third highest PER on the Jazz at 15.0 while placing third on the team in defensive rebounds and steals. All together, it’s no surprise that the Jazz again sport an elite defense: third in the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions before Sunday’s loss dropped them to 10th.

The division foes learned this lesson, too, as Minnesota was the only one of the foursome to reach 100 in regulation. Denver put up 96, OKC stalled out at 87, and Portland needed overtime to get 103. All four opponents experienced offensive hiccups, because of stifling defense in general and because in each case, the Jazz took a star away.

It seemed the Jazz knew they couldn’t contain both (or all three) super stars, but if they could take one away that would be good enough. Against Denver, the D held Jokic to seven points on 30 percent shooting1. New T-Wolf Butler went for 13, and Portland’s C.J. McCollum needed 20 shots to score 16. The best effort had to be against the Thunder, when the D let Anthony shoot 26 times (making 12), which helped limit Westbrook to six points. Six. Like, as much as your grandma scored in church ball last week.

Bench Mob

Against Denver, Sefolosha logged 21 minutes and posted a +25, Udoh popped off the bench for +24, and Alec Burks awoke from the dead for +16. Mitchell was a surprise starter the that darned gastric distress bug bit Rodney Hood, and was the only starter higher than the bench with +22. All told, the depth pitched in 44 points.

Wins against the Thunder and Portland share a similar story. Against OKC, Gobert didn’t play his best but Udoh came in and provided key defensive tenacity. Against Portland, Mitchell scored his career high 28 points off the bench while Sefolosha added 15 points, a key three pointer, and a +24. Jonas Jerebko saw action as a result of Joe Johnson’s wrist injury and played 20 minutes for eight points, seven rebounds, and a +17. As he said in his tweet just a couple of days earlier, he was ready when called upon.

Naturally, in the loss to Minnesota, the bench numbers were lower as those five players scored 18 points total.

The Jazz are deep, with veteran players who know their roles and are ready to play when injuries or mishaps happen. Guys are prepared when called upon, and Mitchell has shown a calm maturity to do whatever he needs to do. Whether he starts or not, whether he plays 30 minutes or not, or whether he faces off with his BFF Lillard or not.

While the starters are still figuring out how to score without departed star Gordon Hayward, whether Hood can achieve consistency, and how the Twin Towers can coexist, the Jazz hold the advantage over their division rivals when it comes to bench bench play. Utah has at least five productive reserves who can affect the dynamic of a game. The Thunder bench feels lighter, with only two or three players posting positive advanced stats on steady rotation minutes. Minnesota’s bench features Jazz-killer Jamal Crawford and little else, the Nuggets entire bench is an army of power forwards (like Trey Lyles!). Portland played Evan Turner 37 minutes off the bench in SLC, which tells the whole story (he was -21).

For Utah to compete in the division all season, the Jazz bench will be a major key.

Home Cooking

Another key to the Jazz’s 3-1 record over their neighbors was that the three wins came at The Salt Palace, Delta Center, Energy Solutions Arena, Vivint SmartHome Arena, The House that Larry Built. Their lone divisional loss so far came on the road.

If the Jazz want to sneak into the playoffs come April, they will have to continue to win games over these rivals, but also win the games at home. A well-coached, veteran team knows how critical it is to bat .750 or so at home,  and at least go .500 on the road. That recipe would give the Jazz 51 wins, just like last year. While that is certainly shooting high for this team, the goal should be the same.

Every night in Salt Lake City should have the mindset to win. Road battles with these four rivals should also be considered winnable ball games. Do that, and the Jazz will hold the edge at the end of the day for a division banner and another postseason appearance.

Comment below on where you think the Jazz stack up in the division based on the small sample size given thus far. Where do you see the Jazz ending up at the  end of the season?

 

 

Steve Godfrey

Steve studied journalism and English, and now teaches in Northern Utah. He also blogs at thetorturedfan.com. He joined the Salt City Hoops team at the start of the 2017-18 season to connect with more Jazz fans and find a way to apply his passion for writing and for basketball.

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  1. Pingback: Too Little, Too Late as Jazz Lose to Minnesota | Salt City Hoops

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