It feels like ages or eons have passed since the Utah Jazz sported an impressive 4-2 record, good enough to tie for the second best record in the Western Conference. The team was heading off on a four-game road trip, and while the competition looked stiff, the Jazz were confident and fairly sharp. They were ready for the gauntlet of worthy opponents in the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Miami Heat, the Orlando Magic and the Atlanta Hawks.
How one week can change things.
Thanks to a spirited performance by the Magic and an uneven one from the Jazz, Utah fell 102-93. And it took a decent run late in the fourth to produce that respectable score. Utah dropped its third straight game and dipped to 4-5 on the young season. Its 3-1 record away from the newly-dubbed Vivint Arena is now a fond and seemingly distant memory.
Unlike the scrappy and gutsy efforts versus the Cavs and Heat, the Jazz seemed tired and discombobulated on both ends of the court. Credit should rightfully be given to Orlando, who played with a very good energy much of the night. Even so, Utah was out of it not long after the tipoff. With 5:09 left in the first quarter, it was staring at a 16-2 early disadvantage, and while there were a few nice spurts, it was an uphill battle that the team simply was not equipped to fight. Here are some story lines from the night.
Depth is an issue for the Jazz: With injuries afflicting starters Rudy Gobert and Rodney Hood1, head coach Quin Snyder found his defensive and offensive schemes negatively affected sans his anchor in the middle and one of his main shot creators and distributors. Furthermore, his rotations were thrown off entirely. Rookie Trey Lyles made his second start and super reserve Alec Burks was also tabbed to fill in for Hood. It was a long night before it had even started.
Two fouls four minutes into the scrum for Derrick Favors only compounded the situation. As a result, players like Chris Johnson, Elijah Millsap, Tibor Pleiss and Jeff Withey saw their first significant playing time of the season. They certainly hustled and worked hard, but the difference in overall talent was palpable. Pleiss, like Lyles, is a project. Most Jazz fans recognized potential issues with depth, but Friday was perhaps the first time where that concern was placed under a microscope. It certainly did not help that Burks had his roughest game of the season, and normally reliable reserve Joe Ingles had his third subpar outing.
In short, the Jazz will have to rely on these young and largely untested players with the hope that the learning on the job/baptism by fire/being thrown to the wolves pays dividends. Not knowing the severity or duration of Gobert and Hood’s setbacks, it may not be pretty. It is too early to commence worrying2, but it could be something the Jazz front office might be forced to address if a postseason run is to come to fruition. Speaking of depth issues…
Trevor Booker continues to struggle: The ever-energetic — bordering on frenetic — Booker actually had a decent stat line: six points, seven rebounds and four steals. That said, the forward still looked off. Minus his game last week versus the Denver Nuggets, it has been a rough start. He just does not appear to be comfortable, like something is different for him and the team. This has really hurt the Jazz as it has left them lacking in terms of a quality third big. Booker’s shooting from all areas of the floor has plummeted, with an especially noticeable drop inside. He is also hesitating from the perimeter, with some awkward pump fakes quickly killing off some open looks. While his numbers in 2015 were not that gaudy, he gave Snyder solid minutes and a veteran front court presence off the pine. Utah really needs him to regain some of last season’s form. Sooner than later would be most helpful.
Jeff Withey can play: There were not a bevy of positives to take away from such an uneven and uninspiring game. One, however, was the play of 14th man Jeff Withey. Entering Friday’s contest, the third-year player had played less than one minute for the Jazz in the regular season. There were even some games where the big center was not on the active roster, which was a bit baffling after a pretty nice showing in the preseason. Between the team’s injuries and foul trouble, Withey was finally given his chance. And like a pro’s pro, he was ready. Withey actually played half the game, tallying eight points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots in 24 minutes. He was active on both ends and helped fill some of the void up front.
Withey simply has a good feel for the game. He knows where to be defensively and has good speed, anticipation and agility to do well against team’s second-string big men. Offensively, he can move without the ball, is always ready and does not try to do too much. Withey catches interior passes well and finishes confidently. It Friday was any indicator, he may have jumped Pleiss in the rotation up front.
Orlando is a team to watch: New head coach Scott Skiles has definitely made his presence felt. He has his team competing and working hard. The result is a nice 5-5 record. They have a lot of young, talented pieces. Center Nikola Vucevic is easily a top 10 center and a borderline All-Star. Tobias Harris can put the ball in the basket, as can the vastly improved Evan Fournier. Point guard Elfrid Payton is an excellent distributor who contributes in many ways. High-flying Aaron Gordon, who could have been a Jazzman had Dante Exum not fallen to Utah, oozes with potential. And Victor Oladipo is a guard who does a lot well.
Add in some solid veterans and shrewd off-season additions in C.J. Watson, Shabazz Napier and Jason Smith and the Magic could be a team that is playing into May sooner than expected.