Jazz Win 11th Straight Game over Feisty Suns

February 14th, 2018 | by Clint Johnson

Donovan Mitchell’s (45) late three sealed an eleventh straight victory for the Utah Jazz, despite the Phoenix Suns’s Elfrid Payton’s (2) first triple double for his new team. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Story of the Game

This game did not look like a formula for a close contest. The Utah Jazz, hottest team in the NBA and winners of their last ten games. The Phoenix Suns, losers of six straight and 11 of their last 12. In Vivint Smart Home Arena. In the last game before the All-Star break, when every player is exhausted and the Suns, with only 18 wins this season, had very little to play for.

Facing that extremely steep hill, the Suns, second youngest team in the NBA, made a valiant climb and nearly crested the top triumphantly before Utah’s defense, and some timely buckets by Jae Crowder and Donovan Mitchell, tumbled them into a seventh straight loss. Meanwhile, Utah won its 11th straight game, 107  to 97.

The Suns young talent on the perimeter was on full display tonight and kept the game competitive. Devin Booker, arguably the best young scorer in the NBA, scored 28. The fourth pick in the draft, Josh Jackson, used his superb athleticism to get to the rim repeatedly and neared his career high by scoring 22. And Elfrid Payton, who the Suns grabbed in a steal of a trade in return for only a second round draft pick, notched an impressive 13-point, 12-assist, 11-rebound triple double.

With what was for much of the night a horrid performance for Utah’s bench, who managed a combined eight points entering the fourth quarter, Phoenix’s young gunners kept the game surprisingly close, including taking the lead numerous times in the third and fourth quarters. But even on a night with the Suns’s future humming and only six Jazz players showed up to play1, Utah was too much for the young visitors. 

All five Jazz starters scored 13 or more points while Jae Crowder piled up 11 points in the fourth quarter alone to end the night with 15. Down the stretch the Jazz kept the Suns’s offense in the half court where their elite defense overwhelmed the young upstarts. Offensively, Crowder’s offensive explosion in the quarter capped a strong game by the starters and propelled Utah to another double digit win. 

Utah enters the All-Star break 30 and 28, only two games back in the loss column of playoff seeds five through eight in the West. They’ve won 11 straight games, their longest streak since 2009. It’s going to be a wild and wonderful stretch run to the playoffs.

Stars of the Game

Superstar: Royce O’Neale (19 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 1 block, 3 threes)

In a game where the Jazz got excellent games from six players2, O’Neale capped off his first stretch as a starter by ascending to, at least for tonight, the team’s best all around player: efficient offensively (he only took 12 shots and made all three of his three pointers on his way to career-high 19), an impact defender, and contributions all across the court. O’Neale’s confidence is sky-high now, as seen by his running trash talk back and forth with the Suns’s Booker. Once undrafted, O’Neale is jawing with stars and backing it up.

Secondary Star: Donovan Mitchell (24 points, 7 assists, 4 rebounds, 4 threes), Rudy Gobert (14 points, 17 rebounds, 1 assist), Derrick Favors (18 points, 12 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block)

What more can be said about Mitchell this season? Critics can certainly latch onto the drop in his offensive efficiency of late, which continued tonight as he took 24 shots to get his 24 points. But he’s the leading scorer on the hottest team in the NBA and a new favorite to make the playoffs. His ability to distribute the ball continues to blossom, and he reinforced his well-earned reputation as an ice-cold finisher with one of the toughest threes of the year to close out this game.

 

Not many people are wringing their hands about Gobert and Favors playing in tandem now. They are simply dominating defensively night after night, and when their offensive game is humming like tonight they give the Jazz an advantage over every team in the NBA. Tonight they combined for 32 points on only 17 shots and gobbled 29 rebounds, including a big eight on the offensive glass3. This duo is wrecking the league right now.

Secret Star: Jae Crowder (15 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal)

In truth, there should be nothing secret about Crowder’s place on this team either this game or going forward. But he deserves the love on Valentine’s Day. In only three games he has cemented himself as the rock-solid veteran presence Dennis Lindsey has coveted for at least a year. Worth particular note tonight is that Crowder still managed respectable offensive efficiency (15 points on 12 shots) despite missing all four of his three pointers. He made up for those misses by attacking the rim ferociously through brute strength, finishing several layups through heavy contact, and brilliant off-ball cuts. In a surprisingly close game he had 11 points in the fourth quarter, cementing his already clear value to this team.  

Stats of the Game

14 – Jazz offensive rebounds, nine more than the Suns. 

29 percent – Three point shooting by Utah, which kept Phoenix in this game.

9 percent – Field goal percentage of Utah’s bench outside of Crowder’s five of 12 night.

10 – Threes taken by Utah’s bench, all misses.

8 of 10 – Free throws made and taken by the tandem of Favors (four of six) and Gobert (four of four).

Sundries

  • Every Jazz starter and Crowder truly deserve praise for tonight’s game. Each was awesome. Those six players combined for 103 points, 49 rebounds, 20 assists, five steals, and three blocks. After trading away Rodney Hood and Joe Johnson, Ricky Rubio’s injury has left Utah a little shallow on the bench when it comes to scoring. Utah’s top six were so good tonight that didn’t matter.
  • The Jazz are doing so much well right now. One really enjoyable thing about how they’re playing is the new wrinkles and facets they’re slowly adding to the game. Tonight Quin Snyder opened the game with Mitchell setting a screen for Gobert at the elbow! Rudy Gobert has now officially been entered into the record books as the ball handler in a called pick and roll! Gobert has been taking, and even making some, wide open jumpers. Favors has been doing the same from the three point line. Mitchell is throwing outlet passes like he’s Lonzo Ball, and Favors is running and scoring in the open court. The team is even starting to look for Gobert deep in the post when the ball reverses sides of the court. It’s erratic, a player here and there, but a few of these things are happening in every game and they’re coming from a host of players. As their confidence grows, so is the complexity of their sets as they continue to mature in Snyder’s intricate system.
  • It was stunning how clearly the Suns depend on an up-tempo style. Off Jazz misses when they could get into the open court, they were truly lethal. Adding Payton to Jackson gives them impressive speed and athleticism with the ball. Add in Booker’s awesome scoring ability, and this team has perimeter talent to build around. I’m just not sure about their 20-year-old front court in Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. They’re really young and should improve, but they look like two likely busts for such high draft picks.
  • O’Neale scored nine of Utah’s last 11 points to end the first half while Crowder scored 11 in the fourth. The Jazz’s offense really is egalitarian and a hero can come from anywhere on this team if a player is simply willing to step up.
  • Honestly, as well as the Suns played, this game shouldn’t have been this close. Jazz players missed some wide open three pointers, a few in ugly fashion. Raul Neto hit the side of the backboard on an open corner three, and Jerebko missed all four of his attempts from long range without any of them looking particularly close. Given the shots the Jazz got, this probably should have been a 20-point victory.
  • Crowder really will be great for this team. He’s already shown he may be the best cutter on the roster because he’s decisive, extremely smart, and incredibly strong. If he gets an alley to cut down, look for his teammates to increasingly look for him because he can finish through anything short of a full-on tackle. 
  • Donovan Mitchell is going to mature into a player with James Harden’s game in a Russell Westbrook body. Look at that shot in the clip above. What player in this league makes that shot that smoothly and then, in the same game, this pass (pay particular attention to the slight look away and hand gesture before the delivery):

Jazz players can now rest on their laurels over All-Star weekend, except, of course, for Mitchell and O’Neale, Utah’s awesome rookies who will take part in the festivities. For all intents and purposes, the Jazz are now neck and neck with six teams for the last four playoff spots in the West, with a seed as high as third not out of the question. While everyone on the team is likely looking forward to a rest, there must also be anticipation about getting back on the court to continue their push to the playoffs. 

Take note: this team isn’t merely looking to squeak into the post-season as an eighth seed. The way they are playing now, with the prospect of getting back Rubio and perhaps even Dante Exum for the stretch run, means no one should write off the Jazz’s chance of scoring home court in the first round of the playoffs. 

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson is a professional author, writing educator, and editor. He teaches writing at Salt Lake Community College. A frequent presenter at both writing and educational conferences, he writes about the Jazz as a break from his other writing work.

2 Comments

  1. Paul Johnson says:

    Elfrid Payton looks like a really nice pickup for the young Suns. I liked his talent and potential going into the 2014 draft, but he didn’t seem to develop well in Orlando. He seemed more concerned about sporting the coolest haircut in the NBA (what I call the “Jiminy Cricket” hairdoo). If he can continue to play like he did last night for the Suns, he could be one of the Suns’ greatest trade steals ever–along with Kevin Johnson and Charles Barkley.

    With (rejuvenated) Elfrid Payton, Devin Booker and Josh Jackson looking like they could be future stars, and with TJ Warren and Alex Len looking like they could develop into solid rotation players, I think the Suns have a really nice young core for the future. And, the Suns have a chance to get another nice player in the 2018 draft, if they can get it right.

    Last season, I thought Marquese Chriss was looking like one of the steals of the 2016 draft and coveted him for the Jazz, but immaturity issues have really stalled his development, and Dragan Bender is looking like a big dud right now. However, if the Suns can reclaim either of those two players from being a draft bust, re-sign Alex Len in free agency (after foolishly failing to re-sign him to a restricted free agent contract last summer) and/or get lucky with picking a great player in this year’s draft, they could have a very bright future.

    However, it appears they’ll have to muck through a few more years of being bad due to being so young, and ride out the terrible free agent contracts they handed out the past few yeasrs (Brandon Knight, Tyson Chandler, Jared Dudley and Alan Williams) before they can hope to become really good again.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      Excellent and deep analysis. Sounds like you like Chriss a little better than I do. He reminds me of a Noah Vonley: lots of fine tools when considered in isolation but in application has shown little ability to apply them in conjunction against competition. I see good raw material for a player but not much of an actualized player.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *