Since our last Salt City Seven, Utah played six really great quarters and 10 pretty awful ones. They were 1-3, but are still on a 50-win pace at the All-Star break. This week, we’ll get a report on the state of the team at the break, straight from the head coach, and we’ll preview a weekend of Big Easy festivities for four Jazz men who will be at the center of the NBA universe.
The Jazz mercifully won their last game going into the All-Star break, saving their fans from what would have otherwise been a week of interminable worry. The win keeps them in a 50-win pace1 and they still project as a surefire playoff team. But the 23-point drubbing of the Blazers doesn’t erase all the questions about how the Jazz have looked recently against good teams.
And their coach knows it.
Quin Snyder used his postgame presser on Monday night, minutes after the Jazz got outclassed by the Chris Paul-less Clippers, to frankly take stock of where the Jazz are heading into the All-Star break. He was honest, unemotional and not particularly kind. Every Jazz fan should listen to the coach’s matter-of-fact assessment.
“We’re a team that, we can talk about being better and being relevant,” Snyder said. “But at this point, we’re relevant. No more than that. You feel that tonight.”
He went on to talk about how that showed, particularly against the Clippers in a game that should have mattered because of how it impacts playoff seeding — including homecourt should these two teams meet up in the 4-5 series. “If there’s something we held back, it shouldn’t have been tonight. You can have some explanations for some games, but this is a game where — I’m disappointed.”
The Jazz started their week — at least their Salt City Seven, Thursday-to-Thursday week — looking as crisp as they had in a long time. They had won four straight and were cruising midway through a third quarter in Dallas, up 21 at the 6:48 mark. They had just completed three fun plays at the rim, and when Dallas called for a time out, Utah players were laughing and joking on their way to the huddle.
Nobody knows whether their jocularity had anything to do with what happened over the next 24 minutes, but NBA guys don’t like to be shown up. Celebrate at the other team’s expense (and in their gym no less), and you might just awaken a sense of pride that shifts the dynamic of the game. Whether that was the reason or not, the Mavs finished the game 62-34 from that point forward.
Then Boston visited the Jazz and never trailed on the way to a butt-kicking that only looked better because of some garbage-time buckets. Utah trailed by as many 23 in a fourth quarter that wasn’t even remotely up for debate. And then came the Clippers game, the outing that earned Snyder’s tough talk. He talked about the Jazz getting pushed around, about a lack of toughness to play through it. And he was hardly done.
“Tonight we showed what a bad team looks like when you’re not ready to play, when you’re not tough enough mentally to play,” the third-year coach panned. “We haven’t always been that, we were that tonight.”
He’s right, the Jazz have had looked plenty tough on many occasions, including in big wins over elite teams like San Antonio and Cleveland. Every game is a universe unto itself, and it’s not wholly fair to level judgement against a team for two and a half bad performances, especially ones that followed four straight quality wins.
But it’s not an exaggeration at this point to say that Utah has a problem against good teams. While only three clubs in the league2 have fewer losses against losing teams, Utah’s 8-14 record against .500-or-better is the worst mark among either conference’s winning outfits. That doesn’t bode well for a playoff environment, when Utah will face only good teams.
So sure, they beat Portland. Good for them. They needed to win that game, and they won it, convincingly and with the mental focus that Snyder rightly claimed was lacking two nights earlier. They had a good game plan and they mostly executed it, especially on the defensive end where this time it was Utah physically imposing its will and Portland wilting. It was a nice performance, in which Utah never trailed by more than three and only trailed by a single points after halftime.
But the issue still persists: Utah has lost its last five games against the other six surefire Western playoff teams by an average of 12.8 points.
They’ll have plenty of opportunities. They see those six teams eight more times this season, six of which are on the road. It’s part of a brutal post-break stretch during which Utah never plays more than two straight games in Vivint SmartHome Arena. In other words, it’s time to prove the mental toughness that Snyder said was missing during Utah’s recent slide.
OK, let’s move on to brighter themes.
“For me it’s all about how we’re playing this year as a team. It’s the reason why I am gonna be in New Orleans for sure, and the reason I wanted to put in a lot of work, to make our team better.”
– Gordon Hayward on his recent milestones of becoming the eighth all-time Jazz scorer and heading to his first All-Star game
As cool and well-deserved as Hayward’s All-Star selection is, it’s even more gratifying to hear him constantly frame the honor in terms of what it means for the team.
Having said that, it’s also important to make clear just how good Hayward has been. His All-Star leap is real, and continues to validate that. Since being officially selected three weeks ago, Hayward has turned in three 30-point games and averaged 24-5-43. He’s having his best year ever for shooting efficiency (.602 True Shooting) and possession efficiency (9.2% TO percentage), all on a career-high 27.6% usage. Normally there’s a trade-off associated with increasing usage, but Hayward has actually gotten better while also using more possessions. And he’s playing the best defense of his career, something we still can’t always capture statistically.
While we’re on the subject of this weekend’s festivities, let’s go out of order for a special All-Star edition of our “Road Ahead” section.
BBVA Rising Stars Challenge, Friday 2/17 at 7:00 p.m. MST, TNT
The Jazz’s participants on the Team World side of things, Dante Exum and Trey Lyles, should both get some fun burn. There are only nine players on each team, and in Exum’s case in particular, he’s one of just two point guards. There are five big men on the international squad (and only two wings) which means that there will probably be some funky lineups. And that’s probably OK since this event barely resembles a basketball game to begin with. There should be plenty of highlights, though.
D-League All-Star Game, Saturday 2/18 at 12:30 p.m. MST, NBATV
A late addition to the Jazz’s delegation to All-Star weekend, rookie Joel Bolomboy was named an injury replacement for the Saturday afternoon game of the best D-League talent. Bolomboy is leading the D-League with his 12.9 rebounds, but he’s also scoring (15.8 points), defending (1.3 blocks) and letting fly from downtown (48.3%, though on just 29 shots).
State Farm All-Star Saturday Night, Saturday 2/18 at 6:00 p.m. MST, TNT
It’s still a bit of a sin that Joe Ingles isn’t representing the Jazz at the Three Point Shootout, given that he’s third on the three-point percentage ranking for the season.
But Hayward will be there to represent. Gordon will compete in the Skills Challenge, the obstacle course designed to test players’ basic fundamentals — dribbling, shooting, passing — against a clock. Hayward will compete in the small bracket against Devin Booker, John Wall and Isaiah Thomas, and then the winner of that bracket will compete against the most skilled big.
2016 NBA All-Star Game, Sunday 2/19 at 6:00 p.m. MST, TNT
And then it’s time for the main event: the 66th midseason classic, and the first one to include a Jazz player since 2011. There aren’t a ton of minutes to go around, but Hayward should see enough action to make a mark and further ensconce himself in the conversation about the NBA’s best.
As we’ve discussed in previous “Playbook” installments, the Jazz like offensive actions wherein a bunch of bodies converge right at the middle of the floor. Other teams try to stretch the defense out, but Utah’s approach to spacing is definitely an inside-out version, kind of a smashmouth take on smallball that goes right into the gut of the defense.
Portland’s defense has no idea what to defend here. It starts out looking like horns, but instead the ball goes to the elbow for Hayward and then he, George Hill and Rudy Gobert come together in a confusing morass. Hill never really even screens anybody, he’s just making sure Damian Lillard has to chase him down to the nail4 so he can’t really defend the Hayward screening action. So now Hayward’s defender has to go over, and because they’re running this tight little pick-and-roll just 15 feet out, Gobert’s man has to drop back and contain. Hill hurried back to the three-point line, and now Portland has nothing but bad choices.
Hayward now has two defenders fully occupied, and it’s just a question of which Jazz player the remaining three Blazers will choose to leave.
Joe Johnson scooted up to give Hayward a passing angle, so if either corner guy comes in to squeeze Gobert, a shooter is open. And Hill’s retreat to the top of the arc has pulled Lillard away from the roll man.
Jazz 111, Blazers 88: Joe Ingles
This one could have gone so many different directions. Exum was probably the story of the night, and Hayward had the best line (22-6-7). But Ingles played an outsized role in the Jazz’s only win of the week. Not only was he on fire from deep with his four three-pointers, but his defense was really important in this one. He was assigned to pester CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard, and the fact that he was able to do so is evidence of just how much progress he has made as a defender in the last year. He and Hayward shared the game-best +31 for the night, and the Aussie added 7-for-9 shooting and four steals. Gobert, Hill and Johnson were also all really important to the win.
OK, so I didn’t give Exum the game ball from Wednesday, so let’s give him the next best thing: the stat section.
That’s Exum’s true shooting figure in seven game leading up to the All-Star break, since he was reinserted into the rotation following Rodney Hood’s injury. More important than that number is how he’s been scoring. He has been a lot more aggressive and active, average 6.4 drives per game in that stretch, compared to 3.4 in his previous 34 games. He’s back to playing (mostly) focused defense, and the team outscored opponents in those seven games by 28 with him on the court.
Wednesday’s game was a nice capper. He was mentally prepared to stay in the defensive game plan, plus had three or four wow plays, including maybe his best single highlight play in the NBA…
Speaking of which…5
— Nicholas Sciria (@Nick_Sciria) February 16, 2017
Enjoy the All-Star break, everybody!