The Jazz wrapped up March with a 9-7 record, starting cold but finishing with an 8-3 surge. The last week of the month, though, was packed with storylines. Kobe. AK. The Dubs. Another worrying injury. And, oh yeah, four big games in a tight playoff race.
Here’s your 22nd edition of the weekly Salt City Seven.
In a season with oh-so-many losses the Jazz can attribute to various injuries, they might have just given back what could have been the biggest win of the year because of a banged-up knee.
Had the Jazz sealed the deal against the Warriors — they led by 10 in the third quarter, eight with six minutes left, and three with a chance at the ball at the :16 mark — they would have effectively ensured themselves a playoff spot. Instead, they had to play the final 18 minutes of regulation without the single most important component to their defensive game plan.
I’m not sure how people still overlook Derrick Favors’ importance, but if they do, they should check out Wednesday’s game. The Jazz’s whole approach was to invite MVP Steph Curry into the jaws of the help defense Favors and Rudy Gobert provide. Favors’ ability to guard in space and Gobert’s back-line dominance were the key ingredients in that strategy, and they helped the Jazz control the first 2.5 quarters. But when Favors tweaked his knee and had to come out, the Jazz were improvising their defensive approach, and it got messy. Golden State’s net rating was +24 the rest of the way.
The Warriors essentially went positionless from then on, abandoning positional strictures for a game of matchup chess. The Jazz would try to use Gobert on less threatening wings1 to keep him out of awkward switches, and GSW answered by keeping those guys in space to neutralize the Stifle Tower’s defense. Gobert actually did more than admirably chasing smalls out around the court, but the defensive matchups were awkward the rest of the way.
Utah also badly missed Favors’ ability both to score and to take pressure off of others. He was the only Jazz player with a triple-digit O-Rating for the evening, and all of Utah’s extended droughts came while Trevor Booker or Trevor Lyles were on the floor.
Utah still had a chance to win without Favors, though. Here are some other things that got in Utah’s way down the stretch.
Hopefully Favors’ knee injury is a minor thing that doesn’t cost him games. Either way, it feels like the Jazz found a way to let a big one slip through their fingers.
I’m going to break form for the first time in 22 editions of the SC7, and instead of looking at a single play, we’re going to talk about how Utah reacted to a quirky situation on Monday night.
With Hood in Human Torch mode, Kobe Bryant decided to spend the rest of the evening in the second-year guard’s gym shorts with him. The Black Mamba is ridiculously competitive, but there was nothing to compete for with his team down 30, 40, at one point even 50 points to the Jazz, so he found a game-within-a-game he could still make interesting: I’m not going to let Hood score anymore. And man, was he committed, even giving up wide open layups and easy paths to the basket to Hood’s teammates just so he could go to sleep that night saying, “Hey, Rodney didn’t score again.”
It’s how the Jazz reacted to that extreme approach that I found both interesting and illustrative of Snyder’s philosophy. Watch what Hood does (and doesn’t do) on the 14 second-half Jazz possessions during his 8:20 that ended with a field goal attempt.
Watch Hood frequently just step out past the three point line and just stand, knowing that Kobe isn’t leaving him and that will create a lot of real estate for others. On one play he makes a little backcut to test Kobe’s allegiance to the tactic, and on another he briefly handled the ball before giving it up. On the rest, he was a ballast, holding Kobe in place. Hood didn’t attempt a shot or register an assist in the second half. And he didn’t want to.
So no, Kobe did not “shut Hood down” as at least one outlet suggested. This was the Jazz making a conscious decision not to counter the pressure because doing so brought LA’s only engaged defender out to 25+ feet. They knew they could have success on the resulting 4-on-4 possession with tons of offensive room, and they did: Utah’s offense rated 134.8 during Hood’s second-half minutes.
Look, it was fun watching Kobe take that individual challenge, and it showed his insane competitive streak. But Kobe didn’t dictate anything to Hood. The Jazz have a dozen different ways to counter that kind of fronting pressure, as we discussed in a recent SC7, but they didn’t even try to do employ them. They didn’t want or need to.
This isn’t really instructive of anything because I doubt Utah will ever face a strategy that extreme again — I mean, who would commit so fiercely to one guy as a matter of stubborn pride that they’ll let anybody else waltz in for a layup3? But I share this because it’s a good reminder of Snyder’s offensive principles.
The Jazz’s whole mantra is to flow away from pressure. This is a good lesson to remember next time somebody tells you they wish someone like Hood or Hayward would just “take over” regardless of what the defense is doing. It’s just not what these Jazz believe in. Snyder was more than happy to let a guy who was scorching hot in the first half turn into a powerfully magnetic decoy in the second.
Snyder said as much: “At a certain point, if they’re not leaving him at all, he’s just not gonna have as many looks, it’s that simple… I don ‘t really believe in getting him shots to increase his total.”
Utah’s remaining opponent winning percentage is easier than Memphis’, Portland’s and Dallas’, Of the teams in the five-through-nine race, only Houston (.414) has an easier landing as the season’s end approaches.
The number of games remaining for all five teams in question.
The Jazz’s visit to OKC ended as expected — an elite team held court and the Jazz came away empty-handed.
What did exceed expectations, though, was the shade game on both sides after this one was over.
😂😂😂 a year later. Meek Mill style https://t.co/SXCoOXXT6z
— Trevor Booker (@35_Fitz) March 25, 2016
Jazz 93, Wolves 84 – Gordon Hayward
I started thinking this was a question of whether what Hayward did in 12 minutes outweighed a game’s worth of steady work by Derrick Favors, whom I had penciled in as Game Ball frontrunner until his buddy from Butler went nuts. But then I realized that even if you look at cumulative impact, Hayward still probably edged him. Favors was awesome with 19-5-2-2 on 15 shots, but Hayward had 18-5-5-2 on 15 shots, and the lead was one before his 16-point fourth put the game firmly in Utah’s grasp. As is usual with road wins, others could also make a case, primarily Gobert (4 blocks, 21% rim defense) and Lyles (opened the floor with three 3s and smart attacking).
Jazz 123, Lakers 75 – Rodney Hood
Let’s not make this more complicated than it needs to be. Yes, Rudy had flypaper hands under the glass. Yes, Trevor Booker had his best offensive night of the year. Yes, Shelvin Mack had an unreal +/-. But when a guy does what Hood did in the first 24 minutes of that game, it’s clear who had the biggest impact on the game. And if you don’t trust me, ask Kobe.
It’s a relatively light seven days of basketball. The Jazz have three games, and probably need to find a way to win two of them.
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) March 29, 2016
Not enough room here to do my full sappy treatise on just how important AK was to the post-S2M Jazz or to my own sports reporting career, but I couldn’t call the week’s recap complete without some quick props to Monday night’s honoree, a guy I used to call “el alero eléctrico” in game write-ups4.
Someday, I’ll regale SCH readers with some of my favorite human moments with the AK-era Jazz. For now, let me just publicly thank Andrei for the hundreds of times he put down a Russian novel or got home to his kids a few minutes later so that I could chat hoops with him. He’s a rad human being and a significant, complex, interesting part of Utah Jazz history.