This week could have gone a lot better for the Jazz, who went 1-3 since our last installment. But bygones are bygones, and the 44-28 club now has to deal with the fallout. Their grip on a top-four seed has loosened, which is why they’re staring at maybe the most important single contest of their year.
The bad news is that the Jazz’s recent three-game skid has put them in a position where they essentially have to win in Clipperland on Saturday to retain homecourt in the first round of the playoffs. The good news is that means basketball fans have one hell of a game coming up on Saturday.
Utah righted their ship with a nationally-televised win over New York on Wednesday, but not before some damage was done. The Clippers have closed to within a game of the Jazz, meaning fourth place in the West is legitimately on the line when the two squads square off in a rare afternoon game this Saturday.
The Jazz still haven’t taken a full, healthy roster into a game versus the Clippers this year, and they probably won’t on Saturday, since we haven’t heard any news of Derrick Favors nearing a return1. But that couldn’t matter less. It’s time to win games with what you have, or live with the consequences.
Utah has had its struggles lately, but so has LA. The Clips are essentially playing .500 ball for the past month: 8-8 since the break, 3-3 starting with a loss at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Utah could be catching them at a vulnerable moment, or they could encounter a team on Saturday that’s eager to definitively send a statement heading into the final stretch. The Jazz have two games off to rest up, ice sore muscles and prepare a solid game plan while the Clips first have to deal with the Mavs in Dallas on Thursday night, but in a game like this, that may not matter all that much. Both teams know what’s at stake, so finding the mental fortitude to compete shouldn’t be an issue in either locker room. If it is, the team that fails to bring it probably has bigger existential issue anyway.
More likely, this will be a question of who can impose their will, whose game plan can withstand adjustment after adjustment, who plays harder and smarter.
This Jazz team as a group hasn’t been in a lot of games like this one. They did face the Rockets in Houston at exactly this point last season and came away with a hard-fought and impressive 89-87 win against a team they were competing with for playoff spots. But then two weeks later at home, they coughed up a nine-point loss to Dallas that essentially eliminated them from playoff contention. And even those two games weren’t completely parallel situations, since this coming Clips-Jazz affair could decide who hosts the likely playoff series between these same two teams. That’s drama. And it’s a situation that most of the Jazz’s players have never been in.
Which is why we should all be fascinated.
This is the type of game where rising teams cut their teeth and prove something — or it’s the type of game where they don’t, as was the case when Dallas thumped the Jazz in Utah last April. But here’s what we all know for sure: it’s a big one. It’s THE big one.
Here’s visual proof of everything we said above, plus more detail on the four-through-seven race.
Dallas has fallen back into the bottom 10 after losses in four of their last six, but they’re still a team in a position to help Utah out. They’re at least nominally still in the playoff race — 3 losses out of eighth — so if they keep their foot on the gas at all, they have five chances to inflict some losses on the teams chasing Utah.
Of course, technically the Jazz don’t need help, from Dallas or from anybody else. They control their destiny in the sense that if they win out or only lose when LA does2, that last homecourt spot is theirs. But looking at their opponent slate next to the Clippers’ makes it clear: either the Jazz are going to have to gut out some IM-PRES-SIVE wins or LA is going to need to continue to waver.
It is starting to feel like they’re safe from sliding to seventh place. Even if the Jazz do nothing more than split their final 10, Memphis would need a 9-2 close to catch them, and it’s tough to imagine that kind of push from the Grizz at this stage. However, 8-3 is definitely within reach of the Thunder, so the Jazz really need to start winning, including against good teams.
“I don’t like our energy. It showed up early in terms of some breakdowns. We broke down in basically every significant way: screening defense, pick-and-roll defense, defensive rebounding, transition defense, hand-off, post-up. There you go. Every significant area where we work. I know we have habits. I know how much we’ve invested in those habits. So when that happens that just tells me we’re not in the right place mentally…
“As a whole, we need more energy. Whether that comes from guys that are playing minutes, guys that are coming off the bench, I mean I’ll find it anywhere we can get it right now. If you got it, c’mon. We need it.”
– Coach Quin Snyder, after the Jazz finally halted a three-game slide
Those are loaded words from the coach, but more than anything it was his tone of exasperation that seemed noteworthy here. Snyder is obviously searching for guys who will play with the right “juice,” as he likes to say.
People often look at outcome-based numbers when trying to discern why a coach would use certain players and shelve certain others. Snyder’s point here about habits is a good reminder that coaches very seldom care about this guy’s Net Rating or that dude’s effective field goal percentage as much as they care about having guys on the court they can trust to execute a game plan and play the right way.
That may sound arbitrary to fans, but if you’re a player, that should actually take pressure off of you. Snyder’s not going to bench a player whose shots aren’t falling as long as said player is performing with energy and doing the right things. And those are things a player has full control over.
So Sndyer’s right to be searching. You or I may not agree with every minute decision that results from that search because we’re thinking about winning a game in March. Snyder is too, but he also knows that to win games in May and June, teams need to have the right culture and habits.
When I was rewatching the Jazz-Pacers close looking for clips for an article I wrote elsewhere, I kept thinking, Wait, when does the run happen? Even the score at the start of the clip below seemed weirdly distant for a game that was a one-possession difference in the final minute. Obviously the Jazz had some work cut out for them just to make it close, and this shot was part of that, kicking off an 11-3 run.
I love “elevator doors” stuff in general, but especially when it’s flawlessly executed and frees up a top-five three-point shooter. What makes this better is that the defense had no idea that’s what was coming.
Utah starts this play like it’s a simple staggered screen for Hayward to receive the ball on what’s called an Iverson cut across the top. The bigs involved in that action don’t flinch much, but Joe Ingles’ defender certainly buys the bluff as Joe sits quietly away from the action trying to look casual.
Before you know it, Ingles is taking off toward the side elevator doors action — that’s the name for when two screeners let a cutter through and then slam shut the space like elevator doors shutting in front of you. Former Jazzman CJ Miles just can’t get through that wall of bodies, and Ingles sinks a wide open practice shot.
The unexpected and untimely slump this week means we only have one Spalding to bequeath, and this time around it wasn’t hard work to discern whose mantle it should sit on.
Jazz 108, Knicks 101: Rudy Gobert
A career night, largely because New York could simply not keep this 7’1″ beast out of the paint or off the offensive glass. Sixteen of his career-high 35 points3 came on second-chance opportunities. He also finished on the roll, grabbed 13 boards, swatted six shots, intimidated countless others, drilled nine of 12 free throws and helped his team outscore the visitors by 13 points during his court time. Hayward deserves credit for recovering from an abysmal start (he finished with 19-8-3 after missing nine of his first 11 shots). He had 13 fourth-quarter points as the Jazz were coming back, but my guess is even he’d happily agree that Rudy takes home the leather tonight.
Utah’s magic number is officially down to one. The next Blazer loss or Jazz win officially guarantees playoff basketball will return to the Wasatch Front this April.
-12.9 and -8.9
In the month of March, Utah’s Net Rating absolutely craters when Rudy (-12.9) or Gordon (-8.9) sit down. For most of the season, that hasn’t been the case; they certainly play better with those two than without, but their depth at different points in the season allowed them to bandaid over their stars’ resting minutes with decent lineups. Derrick Favors’ injury and the struggles of several rotation regulars has changed that. The Jazz, numbers tell us, simply can’t survive these days without Gobert or Hayward on the floor.
In Gobert’s case, Favors’ absence just makes it so there aren’t enough quality bodies to go around while Rudy sits. Joe Johnson is wearing down a bit as a full-time four, Trey Lyles is in a terrible slump, and Boris Diaw, despite a delightful collection of old man moves and zippy passes, is a liability in other areas. The Jazz have turned to Jeff Withey more of late to give themselves another option, but his on-court Net Rating and D-Rating are the worst on the team in March.
They have more abundant options to buy Hayward a breather, but that’s less true when Rodney Hood (10.2 points on 38.5% shooting since All-Star) is struggling, Alec Burks is still relearning team basketball, and Johnson is logging all of his minutes at power forward. Luckily for Utah, Ingles has been somewhat indispensable, too. In fact, he’s the next guys on the list of players Utah can ill afford to take out of the game: they’re -1.2 per 100 possession when Joe sits in March.
What was more fun than watching one of the best Jazz teams ever get together on Wednesday night to witness a Jazz win? Not much, but this came close.
Bryon Russell and John Stockton just recreated The Shot. Took one try. pic.twitter.com/9L4NHtAquV
— Aaron Falk (@aaronfalk) March 22, 2017
Seeing that group back together — minus some notably absent principals — and reliving some of the paramount moments in the franchise’s history was the highlight of a week that ran low on highlights. I’m glad the club made an effort to reach out to guys who played a role in that memorable season, and I’m glad that Jerry Sloan got another chance to be in the spotlight and recognized for what he was. So many of the fellas treated this as an opportunity to rally around Coach.