Don’t look now, the the Jazz have suddenly won six of their last seven, including consecutive road games and a home takedown of the reigning Eastern champs. The tide has turned for the blue, green and gold, who — at least for a few hours — currently occupy a playoff spot.
We have a lot to cover in our weekly roundup of Jazz themes, so dig in.
The analysis in this space last week was the Jazz needed to find two wins on this trip. Mission accomplished, and now a chance for extra credit. They’re 2-1 on this 5-gamer, with stops still coming at Oklahoma City and Minnesota.
Locking up that win in Houston — and against a rival in the six-through-nine scrum, no less — gives the Jazz some added security in the playoff hunt. But as Quin Snyder pointed out, some of the value in being in this race is realized regardless of the final outcome.
“This whole process right now is good,” the coach said in his postgame chat with media on Wednesday. “Whether it’s one game or a number of games, just being in an environment like this one (Houston) on the road or being in a hunt competitively puts your team in a situation that’s new for us — for all of us.”
There’s certainly something to be said for getting reps in intense, playoff-like games. I’m a big believer in the idea of institutional memory. Teams that have collectively been in tough situations and found a way to win often find ways to win, even when they shouldn’t. Conversely, teams with a collective memory of falling apart sometimes fall apart.
It doesn’t always happen that way, but in a close game that’s going to be decided by a few 50/50 balls and late defensive stands, it’s amazing how often the team with more big games on its collective résumé just magically prevails.
I was thinking about this while watching Sunday’s Memphis-Phoenix game, where the Suns tightened up under pressure and gave away a lead with 2:00 left by finishing 0/7 with a turnover. The Grizzlies, whose injury-decimated rotation has no real business winning road games from behind right now, magically came up with stops and shots, scoring eight straight to close. They just have a collective expectation that they’ll be OK, and that confidence turns into made plays.
That’s the type of muscle memory the Jazz hope to build, but it doesn’t happen without being in a bunch of games like this Wednesday’s. The Jazz went toe-to-toe with a tested (if also underperforming) team and got experience that they’ll remember the next time they’re in a similar situation.
“Whether we stay in eighth or drop out or move — whatever the case may be, I think it’s a good opportunity for us to get better,” Snyder said.
OK, fair. These games are a great laboratory for personal and team growth in the crucible.
But let’s be honest: missing the postseason would be a bit of a momentum killer for a team widely regarded as one of the league’s most interesting teams on the rise. Last spring, guys went home early but with the pride of having become one of the feel-good stories in basketball. Should they fall short of a stated goal this year, guys will head into their summer with a different taste in their mouths.
For now, they have the inside lane on realizing that postseason goal. Stay tuned.
The Jazz’s already league-leading passing numbers have shot up in the last 10 games, a stretch in which Utah is, coincidentally or not, 7-3. That is 12 passes higher than their season-long figure of 353.9 passes per game. And while they still sport the lowest percentage in the league of passes that actually turned into assists, their assist opportunities (40.3 to 42.2), assists (18.9 to 21.0) and points created by assists (46 to 51.7) are all up as well.
The reason why probably has a little something to do with Shelvin Mack.
“I honestly don’t know whether this qualifies as a ‘like’ or ‘dislike,’ but there is a preposterous amount of Shelvin Mack happening in Utah. On the one hand, Mack is shooting 47 percent from deep as a Jazz man, and Utah’s new starting lineup with Mack at the controls is blitzing opponents by 14 points per 100 possessions.
On the other hand, we’re talking about Shelvin freaking Mack. There are games, and segments of crunch-time, in which it feels like Quin Snyder’s soft spot for Mack is almost obsessive.”
-ESPN’s Zach Lowe
As we covered last week, Mack’s recent performance has ended the starting PG debate. But Lowe and others are still right to marvel at how much Utah has reconfigured its offensive approach around a guy who was third-string until six weeks ago.
It’s working, but it’s still weird.
This isn’t a usage thing. Usage only measures the guy at the terminus of the possession. This is about whose hands the ball is in while the play is being created. When Mack is on the floor, it’s usually him, and that’s different from how the Jazz were playing previously.
Before Mack’s recent roll, the Jazz were playing a spread-out offense with multiple handlers, away-from-the-play decoys and side-to-side passing. During this 6-1 stretch, they’re playing a more PG-dominant brand of offense, heavy on basic P&R reads and drive-and-dish simplicity. They have a league-average offense over that span — and they’re winning — so it’s not a problem. But we’d by lying if we said there weren’t guys who are still adjusting to having their roles reshaped on the fly. To Lowe’s point, the really interesting part is seeing Utah turn its offense over to Mack down the closing stretches of games1.
Again, Mack deserves a ton of credit for the way he has helmed Utah’s offensive of late while also rediscovering his own shot. The Jazz would not be sitting at 35-36 in a 7th place tie without him.
There are many ways to create space on a basketball court. In the Steph Curry era, a lot of people think “spacing” is synonymous with “shooting,” but that’s really just one way to approach it. Bigs who finish well can pull the defense down by getting deep position, and that creates room. Side-to-side passing pulls defenses in ways that can create fissures. And then there’s the subtle stuff that happens within a play to tilt the balance of the court.
It’s why I loved this play from Sunday’s win over Milwaukee.
After the Jazz secure an offensive rebound, it looks like they’re just going to go into an elbow pick & roll with three guys dotting the weak side. But that wasn’t the plan at all. The plan was to fool the defense into approaching the P&R defense a certain way based on a heavy weak side, and then quickly wobble the weight back to the ball side to give Rodney Hood loads of room to work.
Hayward brings his defender to the left corner area before the screening action. That leaves Hood as the weak side corner — which is where most teams prefer to bring the help from — and Rudy Gobert in the dunker. Most teams would guard that by having Khris Middleton contain the roll man while Gobert’s defender2 zone covers those two from the right baseline. But then Rudy sneakily cuts to the strong side at the exact right moment as well, taking his man with him, and there’s nobody left to watch Rodney.
By the time Hood is cutting, the nine other bodies are all crammed into a tight little trapezoid, and Hood has the ENTIRE weak side to himself.
Really great design and action here.
Three wins since our last Game Ball update means we have three Spaldings to dole out to the most important guy in each win.
Jazz 103, Suns 69 – Joe Ingles
Joe gets his first Spalding while filling in for Utah’s best player during this shellacking laid on the Suns. You could talk me into Mack here, who had a second straight game with double digit assists and narrowly missed a triple-double, but it was just one of those weird nights when even Joe was rocking a “Did I really just do that?” laugh after taking back-to-back Phoenix turnovers to the other coast for a Slo-Mo version of a fast break. In all, his six steals were a career high, and most of his 15 points (on just 8 shots) came during the competitive part of the game.
Jazz 94, Bucks 85 – Gobert
Without a doubt, the hardest GB decision in a long time. When I asked the tweeps, you all responded with no fewer than five different answers. All five are worthy candidates, but from this seat, nobody had a bigger impact than Gobert, especially in the third quarter when the game was really decided. Rudy had six points, eight rebounds, two block and two steals in that quarter alone. His net rating was +17.4 better than anybody with a minimum of five minutes, and his defensive impact was palpable. Other candidates: Ingles’ fourth-quarter flurry was both fun and important, Trey Lyles made a case with his creation & shot-making, and Mack joined Dante Exum as the only Jazz players to record a dozen assists in the last two seasons.
Jazz 89, Rockets 87 – Hayward
Hayward came through in a huge game, with a 10-point fourth quarter and great late defense on Harden. His steal with 46 seconds left put Utah in the driver’s seat, and his line (22-6-5-4-1) was pretty starry stuff. A lot of people registered a vote for Booker, who really bailed Utah out on a night when Gobert didn’t have it. Book’s energy and production (10-5-4) were big, but sometimes it’s easy to confuse sparkplug/energy-changer/X-factor with Game Ball. When a star makes play after play on both ends to dig out a comeback win on the road in a playoff race… that’s Game Ball stuff. In fact, Favors (17-15-4 with three blocks and the game-winning dunk) is really the only guy who I would have considered over Hayward here.
There are 12 games left, including four between now and the next SC7 installment.
A 2-2 week is likely. It’s also probably the bare minimum the Jazz need to come away with this week.
Happy birthday to a guy who appears to have made his own present by helping carry his team to a two-point win.
Big birthday win! Really proud of this one. Thanks everyone for bday wishes! On to OKC, another big game tomorrow. pic.twitter.com/rEhNgbsmSK
— Gordon Hayward (@gordonhayward) March 24, 2016