The Jazz sweep both the legs and the season series from the Suns. (AP Photo/Matt York)
The old saying “Anyone can beat anyone any given night” was solidly undermined in Utah’s 101 to 86 victory over Phoenix in the valley of the Sun.
Despite a first quarter where the Jazz combined horrendous shooting (26%) with some strange philosophical experiment wherein they decided to only shoot only three point shots for a stretch1, it never felt the Jazz were in danger of losing this contest.
A 23 to 16 first quarter deficit gave way to a 13 point Utah lead at halftime, all without the Jazz reaching the upper gears of their competitive engine. The man known as Offense on Demand, PJ Tucker2, scored 12 third quarter points, helping the Suns rally to… a ten point hole.
The final stanza saw the Jazz stretch the lead to twenty and win going away. It was about as easy-going a 15-point win as 15-point wins come.
This isn’t to say the Jazz have reached a point where they can notch a victory simply by showing up. Such hubris would be fatal given their win-or-go-home joust with Dallas and Houston for post-season play. But it does show the potential everyone has been watching for several years is maturing toward a combination of talent and consistency that makes beating a bad team on the road routine. That’s something that could not be said earlier this season.
The Player Behind The Player of the Game
To give credit where it’s due, the best player on the floor tonight was Tyson Chandler, who somehow managed to don a pair of flux capacitor equipped Nikes in order to jump back to 2011. You’ve got to feel sorry for a guy who goes for 21 and 183 against Favors and Gobert and still ends up minus 8 on the night. Little help, Suns, huh?
For the Jazz, Hayward made awesome look easy, posting 22 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal, and 1 block on 50% shooting in such an unassuming manner as to make it look, well, normal.
That’s what stars do, by the way. Make the excellent look easy.
While it would be easy to give runner-up honors to either Derrick Favors (17 points on eight of 11 shooting on an uncertain knee) or Rodney Hood (18 points, 7 assists and six of 12 from three), Rudy Gobert deserves recognition for a subtly impactful game.
The Stiffle Tower’s numbers–12 points, 5 rebounds, 2 blocks–don’t do justice for how significant an effect he had on the game. With Favors playing close to the floor and not exploding (likely not testing the sore knee) and the Suns starting two seven-footers in Chandler and Alex Len, this game had the makings of the one of the few nights the Jazz could lose the battle on the interior.
Nope. Largely thanks to Gobert’s defensive presence, Utah outscored the Suns by ten in the paint (46-36) while holding the Suns to 42.3% shooting from the floor.
Trey Lyles is no longer just a developmental bright side to the 36 combined games missed by Favors and Gobert this season. He’s now an important cog in the Jazz’s competitive machine. On a team that is often most vulnerable due its limited shot creators and makers, Lyles has proven a viable option at both. Moreover, he’s proven willing and able to supply a few baskets at key times, such as the rancid first quarter tonight when the rookie chipped in five of the team’s 16 points in the period. His development combined with the imminent return of Alec Burks from injury is huge as the Jazz try to close out the season and, hopefully, earn a little notice in the playoffs.
A theme of the year has been Utah’s attempts to limit opponent fastbreak points. The Jazz are a meat grinder in the defensive half court, so the ability–and inability–to keep teams playing against that strength has gone a long way to determining the outcomes of games. Tonight, the Jazz went one degree better, winning the fastbreak battle 16 points to the Suns’ measly six (four of which came toward the end of the game when the outcome was no longer in doubt). On one beautiful play following a made basket, Favors inbounded the ball to Hayward nearly at half court, who quickly lobbed the rock the rest of the way to the hoop where Lyles dunked. If the Jazz can begin to generate more points on the break, it will cushion their offensive dry spells, making their defense even more effective.
The Suns two best players, Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, are both point guards. With both out, the Jazz dominated the turnover battle, an area where the team typically struggles. Without the players to apply on-ball pressure or experienced ball handlers to manage the offense, the Suns gave up 21 possessions while the Jazz only coughed up ten. Given the few number of possessions the Jazz typically allow, any team that gives Utah a plus 11 turnovers is going to lose.
The Jazz have now held eight of their last 11 opponents to less than 100 points. They won all eight games.
Utah won the second quarter 30-10!
The Jazz racked up 27 assists on 39 made baskets, thanks to five players with three or more assists4. That’s a 2.7 to 1 assist to turnover ratio as a team!
The Jazz starters combined for 78 points, eight fewer than the entire Suns roster. Last game they scored 83, and that was with Favors out.
The team is rolling, but they need to keep it up. The free throw debacle that cost them the upset over the Warriors could really come back to haunt them. James Harden just might drag Houston into the playoffs himself with a few more games like his effort in the win over the Thunder tonight: 41 points, 9 assists, 4 rebounds, 3 steals, and 1 block. Meanwhile, the shortest and stoutest of Jazz killers, J. J. Barea, has decided to start tormenting the team vicariously by afflicting other opponents and getting the Mavericks’ MASH unit into the post-season. He’s averaging 25.3 points a game in his last three, all Dallas wins.
Utah is tied for 7th in the West with Dallas at 39-38. Houston sits one game back at 38-39. Most projections have suggested 41 wins should be good to get into the playoffs. I’m thinking the Jazz need to shoot for a winning record at the end of the year to ensure a spot in a second season: 42-40.
Tuesday brings the San Antonio Spurs to the Viv, which given Gregg Popovich’s penchant for resting stars could mean anything from a near certain loss against a historically great team at full strength to a real chance for the team to change a strongly predicted loss into kicking down the playoff door is multiple stars rest. Add in the possible return of Alec Burks and it should be a night not to miss. The Jazz are playing well, which makes every game an exciting opportunity.
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.