Salt City Seven: Defensive Issues Catch Up to the Jazz

November 5th, 2018 | by Dan Clayton

Defense is the focal point for the 4-5 Jazz. (Garrett Ellwood, nuggets.com)

The Salt City Seven drops every Monday throughout the regular season, with seven regular features meant to relive the week in Jazzland from various angles. Check in every Monday for the quotes, stats, plays and performances that tell the stories from the last 168 hours in the world of the Jazz.

An important quote from Jazz players or personnel during the week.

“We aren’t talking. We aren’t connected.”

-Jazz guard Ricky Rubio, to SCH alumnus and current Athletic writer Ben Dowsett, on Utah’s defense

No six words more aptly sum up Utah’s week than those. Utah’s defense has been B-A-D. With a 116.8 D-Rating in their current 3-game slide, they’re the seventh-worst defense in the league over that stretch.

And Rubio’s right to signal that a lot of it is the result of bad communication. The Jazz constantly change up their pick-and-roll defense based on who they have on the floor, which opponents are involved in the P&R action, and a number of other factors. But that also means every time they guard one, each defender involved has to make a quick calculation as to what the correct scheme is, and too often lately, they have not been on the same page.

Watch two such miscommunications — each involving Rubio himself — where the two guys directly involved in the P&R defense get their wires crossed.

Derrick Rose feasted on Utah’s lack of defensive chemistry, scoring a career-high 50. In this first clip, you see Derrick Favors try to open a window for Rubio to go under the screen, but Rubio clearly expects Favors to show on Rose. And something similar happened against Memphis, when Georges Niang was supposed to show on Wayne Selden, but he released before giving Rubio a chance to get back in front of him.

“We aren’t talking. We aren’t connected.”

It’s not just on-ball action, either. The Jazz are getting forced into bad switches by their own lack of communication away from the ball.

On this screen away from the ball, Royce O’Neale appears to decide unilaterally that he and Rudy Gobert are to switch it, even though Gobert has given him ample room to get through. Gobert looks genuinely surprised, and is consequently late getting out to Malik Beasley’s shot.

“We aren’t talking. We aren’t connected.”

The misunderstandings are also taking place among would-be helpers, too, and the result is a combination of over-helping and under-helping, either of which can be problematic.

In the first clip, you have O’Neale and Joe Ingles unsure as to who should come in to stunt Nikola Jokic’s roll. Usually the help comes from the weak corner, or the corner that is opposite the side the ball is going to, but since Jokic flipped the screen, there’s some confusion as to whose help this is, and nobody gets in front of the the Nuggets’ big man until way too late. And on the second one, Jae Crowder comes in off of his man on the strong side — you’re almost never supposed to help from the strong side — but who is he even guarding?

These are weird breakdowns to see from a team that has been such an elite defensive squad, and several of these mistakes were made by guys who are generally plus defenders. Give the opponents credit, too: Rose was on a surreal hot streak, Memphis’ stars are surgical about picking apart P&R defenses, and Denver runs a sophisticated offense. But those clips show that the bulk of the problem right now is that individual Jazz defenders aren’t always on the same page. On the ball, off the ball, and in help situations.

In other words… they aren’t talking. They aren’t connected.

 

Stats that tell the story of the week or highlight a timely topic.

18-0

Utah led 77-71 in Saturday’s fourth quarter in Denver, and then the Nuggets went on an 18-0 run during which Utah missed even their easy ones. The Jazz missed six straight shots within a few feet of the basket, got an empty free-throw trip from Gobert, saw a red-hot Crowder miss an open corner three, and turned the ball over twice. From up six to down 12, just like that.

30th

Speaking of Utah’s rough stretch in the lane, the club currently ranks dead last in field goal percentage on shots from four to 14 feet (excluding garbage time), per Cleaning the Glass. They’re also dead last on all two-point shots not taken at the rim, and they’re fourth worst on corner threes, which they’re currently converting at a 29.1% clip. The good news: those numbers will progress to the mean. Last year, with largely the same personnel, Utah shot 41.7% from the corners. So the offense can — and must — get better in some of those sweet spots.

56-26

And yet, once again, it’s not really the offense that’s failing Utah. Even during this 0-3 skid, Utah’s offense is producing 107.6 points per 100 possessions. If that had been their ORtg in every game last season, the Jazz would have been able to win 56 of their games based on their game-by-game DRtg. It’s that 116.8 defense that’s keeping them from winning games right now. That’s more than 5 points worse than last year’s Phoenix Suns, the worst defense in the league last season.

11

Rose’s night was a bit unreal, but it prompted our Tyler Crandall to research the number of players to go off for a career night against the Jazz. His research found that 11 players since 20041 have had a career-high in points with at least 40 against Utah. Over that same span, there have been 143 games where an NBA player set or tied a career high of 40-plus, which means the Jazz have suffered more than their fair share of those nights. In fact, no NBA team has had as many as Utah’s 11 opponent 40-plus career nights since 2004.

 

Breaking down the Xs and Os behind a Jazz score from the week.

The Jazz use horns — or two screeners out front — a lot. Tons of their core offensive sets start from there, and because of that, teams pay a lot of attention when Utah lines up in that basic formation.

Which is why horns is also a really great decoy.

Fake Horns to DHO Stagger

Watch Crowder slow up at the top of the slot, letting his defender believe the Jazz are about to settle into horns.

Instead, he darts through the lane toward the opposite corner, taking his defender with him. And at the same time, the Jazz bring Donovan Mitchell up from the corner for a dribble hand-off (DHO) with Rubio. He uses the staggered Rubio and Favors screens to get a beat on his unsuspecting defender. Meanwhile, Karl-Anthony Towns is playing back and O’Neale’s defender is too concerned about switching out on Crowder in the corner to help on Mitchell. So the Jazz guard just steps right into an open 17-footer.

But like many of Utah’s set pieces, this is an option play. They took the open jumper because it’s what was there, but no matter how the Wolves defended this, they would have wound up with a good look. If KAT steps up, Favors is open on the roll, if the guard steps in, Jae gets a corner three, and so forth.

Timing was the key here, and it’s Crowder’s cut after showing horns that signals to the other four Jazzmen when to spring into motion.

Horns as a Decoy

The sheer variety of wrinkles/outcomes that come from a horns setup are enough to occupy the defenders’ attention. Also from this week, the Jazz scored not by faking horns, but by running it almost as a decoy, lifting the big men away from the rim and giving Mitchell a wide open lane to cut into for a bucket.

Watch this entire Rubio-Favors-Gobert dance from the perspective of a defender that doesn’t know what’s coming. You have Favors bouncing outside, then another DHO for Rubio, then Favors cutting back across the Gobert screen… all of that keeps Jokic and Paul Millsap’s attention focused on the top of the key. So when Mitchell cuts around a sleepy defender, the middle of the court is wide open for him. In fact, at the moment Mitchell catches the Rubio pass, Jokic is checking the opposite corner for movement and Millsap is worried about both Jazz big men up top.

Meanwhile, Mitchell sneaks right behind the lifted bigs. Really smart X-and-O work here.

 

After each Jazz win, Twitter helps us decide who was that game’s MVP or most memorable performer.

Well this is awkward.

We dole out credit for each Jazz win in the form of an imaginary game ball. But after Utah’s 0-3 week, there are no fake Spaldings to assign. With any luck, there won’t be too many empty game ball sections this season.

 

A quick look at the Jazz’s next seven nights of action.

After playing five of their last six on the road, the Jazz get to put away their neck pillows and enjoy the friendly vibes of the Viv for this week. And all three opponents will be playing the Jazz on the tail end of a back-to-back.

Monday: Toronto at Utah, 7:00 p.m. MT

  • State of the Raptors: The Raptors are for real, with the fourth best offense in the league. But Kawhi Leonard is questionable with a foot issue. He took Sunday night off in L.A.
  • Jazz-Raps: Each team won on the road in last season’s series, including the thrilling January win that helped Rubio and the Jazz get back on track.
  • Key for the Jazz: Even if Utah’s struggling defense can get back to forcing long twos, Toronto is literally the best team in the league at canning those — 53.8%.

Wednesday: Dallas at Utah, 7:00 p.m. MT

  • State of the Mavericks: The 2-7 Mavericks are the NBA’s third-worst defense as measured by opponent eFG%, even though their rookie Luka Doncic — averaging a rounded 19-7-5 — is legit.
  • Jazz-Mavs: Utah pulled away late when the teams saw each other on October 28, the Jazz’s fourth straight win against Dallas.
  • Key for the Jazz: Dallas’ defense gives up a lot of open jumpers — now the Jazz just need to make them.

Friday: Boston at Utah, 7:30 p.m. MT **ESPN game**

  • State of the Celtics: Boston is 6-3 so far, with a league-leading defense, propping up a flailing offense (102.7 points per 100, 27th in the league).
  • Jazz-Cs: Series records, streaks and history don’t matter: this one is all about Gordon Hayward’s long-awaited return to the arena he called home for seven seasons. There was some speculation that the still-recovering Hayward might skip this one, but it sounds as though he’s planning to play.
  • Key for the Jazz: Manage the emotion. This game is going to matter greatly to Jazz players, and it’s also their first appearance on national TV since their home opener. Channel that energy into good defense and it’s possible they can turn the Celtics into jump-shooters: Boston is dead last in percent of shots taken at the rim and sixth worst in making those shots.

 

Tracking the wild Western Conference postseason race and the Jazz’s place in it.

Utah’s 3-game funk hasn’t done much to cool the prognosticators’ view of them in the long haul.

FiveThirtyEight’s model still views Utah as a shoe-in for the postseason, even if it has downgraded the club to 52 wins. ESPN’s BPI gives the Jazz 49 wins, and a 93 percent chance at playing past April 10.

In other words, these losses aren’t as bad as they feel to Jazz Nation. As we warned earlier this week, Saturday’s game was as close to a scheduled loss as Utah will have all season.

 

Because after all, we’re all here to have fun.

Finding fun buried in a winless week is always a challenge, but luckily avid Jazz tweeter and friend of SCH KantsCategoricalImperative has us covered.

Kant went through all of the Jazz releases for the various jerseys they’ll don during the 2018-19 and compiled for everybody this handy grid that shows when they’ll be wearing what.


That’s it for this week. We’ll be back with more next Monday, and in the meantime, here are links to the first two weeks’ SC7 columns. 

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops, FanRag and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

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