Tuesday night’s game between the Jazz and Thunder had several notable on-court developments. There were a few big runs, a few silly fouls, some great plays and some clunkers. Those of us on media row proceeded downstairs for coach and team availability with an ample, if not overloaded, amount of material for our respective gamers.
What happened next changed everyone’s plans.
After a couple mostly innocent questions and answers for coach Quin Snyder, perhaps none of us knew we were about to receive the most epic speech most of us had ever heard from Utah’s sophomore bench boss. Asked about Rudy Gobert’s play, Snyder instead had several incredibly candid things to say about his team’s development and their realistic place in today’s NBA.
“The thing about our team is, we’ve got some good players and we’ve got an opportunity to be a good team,” Quin began. “But it’s not like anybody, or our team, has done anything. We’ve played well at times. Our individual players have played well at times. But you’re looking at Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and guys that have a level that… we haven’t touched that.”
That was just the tip of the iceberg. Over a two-and-a-half minute uninterrupted monologue, Snyder laid out in clear and precise terms just how much work his team still had in front of them, using tonight’s elite opponent as a template.
“So for us, it’s, ‘Hey look at what that is, and what those guys are doing — how hard they practice. You see them before the game? How hard they went?’ Those are hungry guys that are All-Stars. And if we want to get to that place, individually, collectively, that’s what you have to do… I think they appreciate the opportunity they have — Kevin Durant was hurt for a year, they lost in the NBA Finals, they know that level… And to me, that’s a team that has an appreciation for how difficult to win it is in this league.”
The insinuation, of course, is that the Jazz still lack such an appreciation. And you know what? He’s right. For all the praise heaped on this franchise following their strong play to close last season, those games amount to zip in the long run. For a group this young, it stands to reason that most in the locker room haven’t yet been around long enough to taste the sort of extreme highs and lows that come with success at the highest level.
“You know that you have to do everything, and sometimes that’s still not enough on a given night unless you get a little lucky,” Snyder said. “We don’t understand that — why would we? We haven’t been in that situation. So to play a team that’s on that level, to me, that’s what you have to do to get there. You have to experience it. You can talk about it all you want until Kevin Durant comes down from three feet behind the line, and you go under on pick-and-roll and he drills a three. And you say, ‘That’s what he does. That’s what he does.'”
From the looks of things, Quin had a similar speech for the players in his own locker room. It was a quiet bunch following Snyder’s availability, with the feel of a group that had just received a stern talking-to. It seemed many shared his sentiment, though.
“Guys like you [media] were hyping us up, and hyped us up all offseason,” said Gordon Hayward. “We really didn’t deserve any of that.”
As a particularly uneven and inconsistent preseason nears its close, perhaps this is exactly what this team — and its fans — need to hear. The Jazz accomplished a lot internally last season, more than most realistic prognosticators could have imagined, but their path to their ultimate goal remains miles longer. Sometimes a raw dose of reality is the best way to remind everyone involved of that.
“It’s not being down on our team, either — it’s just a realistic [assessment],” said Snyder. “I love our team… But that doesn’t mean we’re a good team yet. We were a good team for about two months. And we were a good team when other teams were sometimes resting a player. The competition that we played was always formidable in the league, but we weren’t playing teams that were competing for the playoffs very often. I’m not dampening any enthusiasm, but I am being realistic about who our group is — and that’s what our group needs. We need to be realistic about the level that’s out there, and if we want to reach it, it’s a hard road.”
It’s fitting, then, that a shorter coach’s interview than usual simply ended when Snyder was finished. Others had further questions, but they just didn’t feel appropriate anymore — he’d said everything that could be said. Here’s hoping the guys in his locker room were listening.
A few other notes:
Alec Burks continued his strong preseason run Tuesday, scoring 14 points on just seven shot attempts and once again serving as Utah’s easiest path to a bucket on a night when they were tough to come by. His play on the other end was perhaps even more encouraging, though — Snyder chose to stick Burks on Russell Westbrook for large stretches and place Trey Burke elsewhere, and while Snyder said after the game that Burke and Raul Neto actually did the best job on Russ, Burks held his own and then some. He’s almost certainly the only Jazzman outside perhaps Elijah Millsap who can stay in front of a speed demon like Westbrook well enough to force this sort of turnover:
Transition play, and particularly capitalizing on opponent turnovers, continues to be an issue for the Jazz. Utah forced 21 Thunder turnovers Tuesday night, but only managed 13 points as a result — on the other end of the spectrum, the Thunder forced just 11 Jazz turnovers but managed a gaudy 24 points as a result. This is another area the Jazz can look to the Thunder as an example in, and while Hayward was quick to (correctly) point out that Utah only turning the ball over 11 times is a positive in itself, he also agreed the Jazz need to continue to press their advantages. On several occasions tonight, a Jazz ball-handler would find himself in a one-on-one or two-on-two situation with momentum up the floor, but choose to simply retreat back out above the break and reset the offense. Especially given the way the Jazz have been shooting the ball (badly), they absolutely must push even these marginal advantages in transition to keep their offense afloat.
Speaking of the team’s offense, while they got things going in the later parts of the game and continued their success with smaller lineups, there are still several glaring issues. Shooting is among them — the Jazz are now shooting just 31.4 percent in six preseason games from the 3-point line. A decent percentage of these attempts have been wide open, and the offense is going absolutely nowhere if teams know they don’t have to worry about those shots from nearly anyone on Utah’s roster.
Another concern that seems more immediately fixable, though, is the team’s general focus level offensively. Too often this preseason, and especially Tuesday early in the game, the Jazz just haven’t appeared to be playing very intelligent offense. They’re giving up on possessions with 10 seconds left on the shot clock, devolving into isolation play (even a Gobert post-up Tuesday) at the first sign of trouble. They’re not cognizant enough of switches — several times against the Thunder, Derrick Favors found himself matched up down low against Durant or another Thunder wing, and not once did the Jazz even make an effort to enter the ball to that mismatch. Again, this isn’t a group with much margin for error on this end; it could be a long season if they aren’t able to more effectively maximize every little advantage they might have.
Rudy Gobert has really struggled in the preseason by his standards, never more obviously than Tuesday night’s game. Gobert’s minus-27 on the night stuck out like a sore thumb for a team that didn’t have a single other player in negative double figures, and his play on the court didn’t lessen the impact much. He just doesn’t look quite there — plays where last year’s Gobert would have already been in the air contesting a shot at the rim seem to have turned into plays where he’s a step behind and can’t get off the ground until it’s too late. He’s fumbling the ball offensively and on the glass. It just doesn’t look quite like Rudy. It’s fair to give him some degree of a free pass given the hangover his body is still experiencing from his overseas play this summer, but that line of thinking also begs a question: When will he have a chance to make that disappear? The Jazz could sit Rudy Thursday against Denver, but his recovery days are running pretty low with the season set to begin for Utah in just over a week. It’s no time to panic, but the Jazz will need their franchise center at full strength when things get going for real, and he hasn’t yet looked like he’s ready.
Ben Dowsett is a life-long Jazz fan and current in-depth analyst based in Salt Lake City. He also writes for Basketball Insiders and BBallBreakdown, and can be heard on SCH Radio on ESPN 700 weekly. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.