At 2-2 since our last Salt City Seven check-in, the Utah Jazz certainly wish some things had gone differently this week. A no-show in Golden State and being on the wrong end of a 21-point swing on their own court certainly cut into the optimism around what had been one of the NBA’s hottest teams.
We’ll look at how real that shift in energy is, plus tackle more bold statements, big plays, fun milestones and more in this week’s Christmas Eve Eve edition of the SC7.
Momentum is fickle, and a couple of plays can be the difference between a team riding a nice wave and a frustrated group facing (perhaps premature) identity questions.
Look, the Jazz are 18-12 and still have only put their five starters on the same court once. But if you believe in the power of momentum, Utah ended the week like a lamb after spending nearly a month looking like lions.
Really it comes down to three minutes against Sacramento. Of course, it’s more than that, but play along. The Jazz were 11-2 in their previous 13 before losing to Golden State on Tuesday. Up 20 against Sacramento, they should probably take care of business, and if they do, the momentum police are happy to let them off the hook with a verbal warning for Tuesday’s humbling loss to the league-of-their-own Warriors. The Jazz would have completed a 3-1 week with the lone blemish being somewhat understandable, and they’d have been winners in 12 of 15.
We know how this story ends, of course. The Jazz just couldn’t find a way to stop the Kings, who had just 62 points through three quarters and then exploded for 32 in the fourth. At one point early in the final frame, the Kings scored on seven of nine possessions. Some of those lineups were janky, there was some poor individual technique, and or course there was Ty Lawson finding the DeLorean and retrieving his 2013 self.
But even that stretch only brought the Kings to within one, and they still hadn’t led in the game. With three minutes left, it was Utah’s game to win, up two and with possession, on their own court.
And then it was the offense that came up empty.
Despite getting some decent shots, Utah managed just five points on those eight final offensive possessions — a 62.5 ORtg over that stretch. Their only field goal after the 3-minute mark was a Joe Johnson three that was too late to have any real impact, and the only other Utah scores were two separate 1-of-2 trips to the free-throw line.
Some of it was bad shot luck. Johnson and Gordon Hayward both missed shots within six feet that they’ve made countless times, and Rudy Gobert narrowly missed a dunk that could have been a three-point play, instead coming away with just one made free throw. Some of it was poor decision-making, like a Shelvin Mack pull-up 20-footer with more than half the shot clock left, or Joe Ingles trying to slip a pocket pass to Gobert without realizing that the defense had sniffed it out.
There’s no existential crisis here, Quin Snyder was quick to point out. “I’d like not to look at this and say that somehow there’s, based on two games1 in a 30-game season, there’s a trend,” the coach said after the 94-93 loss. “We just got beat, is really what it comes down to. The guys that play gotta be better defensively.”
He’s right on so many levels, although he was a little quick to wave away concerns about an offense that withered in the final 180 seconds. “You make those three layups and we got a 26-point quarter,” he said in the same press session2. Yeah, but those three layups didn’t go in. Everybody’s field goal percentage is 100% if you don’t count the ones they missed.
And that’s how quickly the whole feeling around a franchise can change. If the Jazz get ANYTHING more in those final three minutes, the macro vibe would still be largely positive. Instead, they suddenly look and sound like a frustrated unit.
Snyder’s point, though, is this: Momentum might be fickle. Quality isn’t. The Jazz’s understanding of what it takes to win games is getting better, and in 60% of their games so far, they’ve followed that roadmap to victory. The other 40%, like Wednesday’s loss, bely issues big and small. Defense against attacking guards. Late-game offensive decision making. Getting healthy enough to where you can rely on the best possible players in those late-game situations. Those are not small concerns, but be wary of sample sizes that are as big as “the last thing that happened.”
“To be honest, right now I think it’s me.”
-Rudy Gobert, when asked by ESPN‘s Tim McMahon who the NBA’s best center is
Rudy is on fire lately, on P&R dives, in the defensive paint, and in front of a digital recorder. He is absolutely owning the “quotable” title lately. Last week it was his bold assertion that the Jazz can beat anybody. This week, he lets 29 other starting centers know where he thinks things stand.
Gobert quickly added the caveat that he has to sustain this level of play over 82 games, but he thinks what he’s going right now puts him ahead of Marc Gasol, DeAndre Jordan, DeMarcus Cousins3, Hassan Whiteside, Al Horford and others.
In the latest SCH podcast, Ken Clayton and I examine how accurate Gobert’s assertion is. Take a listen. Spoiler alert: he’s certainly not that far off, if at all. Ken and I could find one or two guys we could even argue you might take over Gobert if we were walking into a gym right now for some 5-on-5.
Two wins means two Spaldings, and this week we welcome a new member of the Game Ball brotherhood.
Jazz 103, Mavs 100: Rodney Hood
The Jazz led this one by 15 in the early 4th quarter, so it never should have needed to be settled by a Deron Williams clock management mistake OR a Hood three-pointer with less than a second left. But it did, and Hood got to be the hero, both of the game and the impromptu shimmy display. Gobert might have had a more impactful night overall4; before snaring the most important rebound of the night and taking it 50 feet himself for the game’s most important bucket, Hood had 12-2-2 on the night. But the difference between that and his final 15-3-2 was a pretty colossal six seconds.
Jazz 82, Grizzlies 73: Rudy Gobert
Just a ridiculous outing for Gobert. Didn’t miss a field goal attempt (9/9) on the way to 21 & 12, plus was primarily responsible for holding the other team’s best player to a 4-for-22 disaster of a night. Take out this game and Gasol has averaged 24.4 over his last 13, so holding him to eight points and horrific shooting was, to say the least, a key to the win. It was a great team defensive outing for Utah, but if you watch Gasol’s 18 misses, on 16 of them you’ll see Gobert’s long arms in front of him5. You know Gobert’s impact had to be enormous for us to look past a 22-7-6-2-3 night by Hayward. Both guys were monsters.
This is a quick-hitter, but it’s such a beautiful little bit of basketball.
From the time Hayward crosses midcourt to the time Favors’ dunk clears the net, about five seconds elapse. I probably don’t have to tell you that’s not the usual cadence for Jazz basketball circa 2016, which is part of the reason I loved this funky little wrinkle.
The Jazz entered this game as the NBA’s slowest team, but the Mavs were right behind them at 29th in pace. And it looked like Utah made a concerted effort to attack early whenever possible. Like here.
The Jazz set this up as though it’s going to be staggered screens6 for Hayward to get baseline… and if it had played out that way, I’m sure they would have taken that. But predictably, Hayward saw a lot of attention here, as his man followed him over AND he had Joe Ingles’ guy waiting back to contain.
The fun part is that, despite what it looks like, Jingles isn’t there to screen for Hayward at all. If you watch him, his only concern is screening Favors’ guy and then making sure that he gets trapped on the wrong side of the play, giving Derrick a wide open rim run.
I’d love to see more of this quick-hitting stuff. Hayward winds up with three guys on him because every Mav believes he’s the focal point of the action. He was, but he wasn’t.
George Hill still has the best on-court ORtg and NetRtg (+14.3) on the entire team. He has also played in fewer games (11) than any of the club’s rotation regulars.
Gobert widened his lead in True Shooting percentage this week. He’s now more than six percentage points higher than #2 DeAndre Jordan (.654). Seventy of Gobert’s 129 made field goals to date are dunks, per Basketball Reference.
Don’t look now, but after a rough start from three this year, Hayward finally has his season percentage from deep within a rounding error of 35%. That’s about the level where the average possession a player uses for a three is worth around the same as a league-average shooting possession7. He’s hitting .419 from deep since November 20.
The holiday week provides the Jazz some unique reprieve: this is the last time all season (aside from the All-Star break) that the Jazz will get through a weekend without a game on Saturday or Sunday. In fact, they only have two games between now and next Thursday’s SC7.
Friday vs. Raptors: Toronto has the markings of a team that’s made it to legit contender status. They have the league’s best offense (per possession) and an insane point differential, second only to Golden State when adjusted for strength of schedule8. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are averaging nearly 50 points combined and are about to face a team with injuries plaguing its perimeter defenders.
Tuesday at Lakers: After a promising 10-10 start to the Luke Walton era, the Lakers have come back down to earth in a major way. They’ve posted a disastrous 1-11 during a road-heavy December. They’ve even lost six of their last eight at home, including a not-as-close-as-it-looked 107-101 loss to the Jazz this month. In other words, the Jazz need to pounce on this wounded animal, even though that basically means we’re asking for a sweep of the season series9
Time to dole out the props.
A little over a month ago, we used this portion of the SC7 to invite speculation as to when Quin Snyder would level off his career coaching record at .500 for the first time. @Run_Pappy got it exactly right, presaging that the third-year coach would lead his team to an 11-5 record from that point, which he did. pulling to 96-96 with the win over Memphis.
He has still never tasted a winning record, but he’ll get there.
After that, the next milestone for Snyder will be passing his predecessor, Ty Corbin, and moving into #3 on the franchise’s all-time coaching wins list. He’ll tie Ty (112) with 16 more wins, and take over the third spot on his own with 17.
Also, the first playoff coaching win Snyder achieves with the Jazz will also move him into #3 in that category — Corbin was 0-4 in playoff games, and nobody else outside of Jerry Sloan and Frank Layden ever made it to the postseason as a coach.
And he’s already #2 in winning percentage — even with the two straight losses, Snyder’s .495 career mark puts him just ahead of Layden (.485).