‘Tis the day before Christmas, but here at this site,
We still provide reading for your Silent Night.
The house is done up like a yuletide boutique,
So take time to reflect on the Jazz’s past week.
Sugarplum visions are overrated anyway,
Instead let’s talk hoops and break down awesome plays.
So if basketball geeking’s your holiday heaven,
Then my present to you is the Salt City Seven.
At 4-7 since the Rudy Gobert injury, Utah didn’t quite make it to Christmas with a .500 record. And sure, four of those seven losses were to OKC, San Antonio and Golden State and are therefore somewhat forgivable1. The real cost of Rudy’s MCL sprain was a pair of home losses to the Pelicans and Magic. Both games where Utah would be heavily favored on paper if their defensive anchor was playing, those two represent the difference between Utah’s current 12-15 and an alternate universe where they’re 14-13.
But record aside, the Jazz are still in OK shape overall. Forecasting models that look beyond record generally still see Utah as a playoff team. Factors like scoring differential and strength of schedule have historically performed better as predictive tools than straight record anyway, and according to several models based on that kind of math, Utah’s on the right track.
What none of these systems can really account for is any future health mishaps or trades. But assuming Utah’s roster stays roughly the same and their key players get/stay right physically, Utah appears to be on track for a 5 to 7 seed. That translates to a lot of meaningful experiences playing relevant basketball for the rest of the season, even if they are a likely first-round out at this stage.
A lot depends on how quickly they get Gobert back and how many more winnable games they let slip without him, like they did against the Pels and the Magic. But on the macro, Utah’s tracking to an important milestone in their team growth.
“We’re gonna play bad sometimes, we’re gonna play good sometimes. Hopefully we play good more than we play bad.”
-Quin Snyder, succinctly describing the nature of life as the coach of a team that’s projected to finish around the .500 mark.
This is essentially the point made in the last section. The Jazz will have rough nights. They’ll have excellent nights. We can ride the emotional roller coaster with them, or we can recognize what they are in overall terms and try to learn some things along the way.
“With a young group, there’s just going to be inconsistency,” Snyder went on. “I don’t want to get too excited when things are good, and I don’t want to get too disappointed when things are bad.”
He then added this, specifically in relation to rookies Trey Lyles and Raul Neto, but it’s pretty applicable to his approach overall: “If they compete and play the right way, I’ll live with the good and the bad because I think over time, they’ll improve.”
In the 827 minutes they’ve played so far without Gobert on the court, that’s their net rating. No Jazz player’s off-court number is that bad, meaning Rudy is pretty darn important.
Utah’s net rating in the clutch in 14 close games thus far is the fifth worst in the NBA. Again, some of that is a function of who they’ve played, but they’re 5-9 in games that were within 5 in the final five minutes. They shoot OK (13th in eFG) in those situations and they defend really well (7th in DRtg), but for some reason they forget to defensive rebound (28th).
The Jazz are still not scoring much in transition — that’s the fourth lowest figure in the league for fast break points.
Lest we overthink things, lets just go straight to the decisive quarter of the Jazz’s best win of the week and we’re sure to find something nifty. Like this alley-oop dunk:
After the offensive rebound, the Jazz go straight into a 2-4 pick-and-roll, and the Suns guard it pretty well. The worst thing you can do here is give Hood a little bit of runway, because he’s so good when he can get into the slot with the defender on his back. This pick actually sends him sideline, but also, this is the right scheme to deploy against Hood: the only play he can make here is a pass to Trevor Booker, who is nowhere near the short roll threat that Favors is.
So Rodney simply backs it out and the Jazz go to their next option. Booker and Favors come out for horns, but only Favors’ man comes out to guard the play. The Jazz know instantly what that means, and you can even see Booker literally pointing out the correct read: if Hood goes sideline again and forces Favors’ man into a trap, then the bigs can both dive and they’ll essentially have a 2-on-1 with Tyson Chandler. Horns sets have a plethora or options, so props to Booker and Hood for instantly realizing the right way to attack given how the defense responded.
So now it’s just Book and Fav against Chandler. Bledsoe is “helping” but not really doing anything2, so Booker just has to wait for Chandler to commit. Favors dunks, Jazz go up 27-9, and the game is basically over already.
Hey, we promised you we’d have some Game Balls for you this week, and we delivered. Well OK, Hayward delivered.
Jazz 97, Nuggets 88 – Hayward
My friends Han, Rey and Finn required my attention for much of Friday evening, which pushed my game viewing back an hour or so and robbed us of our typical Game Ball discussion on the Twitters. It’s OK, though, I don’t think I needed a ton of help with this one. Hayward reeled off 26-5-4 and had to deal with a variety of defensive assignments, from the bigger Danilo Gallinari to fleetfooted guys like Will The Thrill Barton. On all fronts, he did well, winning by 17 in his 35 minutes. He scored or assisted on eight of the Jazz’s final nine in response to a late Denver surge that tied the game at 86 with 3:46. Winning time.
Jazz 110, Suns 89 – Hayward
This game was won in the first quarter, which also happened to be when Gordon knocked down 12 points and played flawless team defense. We probably could have just called the Game Ball debate right there, but luckily he made it even easier by piling up a total of 24-3-4-2-1.
Also considered: Burks (That dunk!). And Quin Snyder. I prefer to reward the players more often than not, but Snyder showed up with another smart scheme to deny Eric Bledsoe the middle of the floor.
With two straight Spaldings, Hayward has caught up on the GB leaderboard and now (perhaps unsurprisingly) shares the lead with Favors.
Three games ere we meet again for the next Salt City Seven. The Jazz are favored in all three, at least as of this moment and according to FiveThirtyEight.com.
Facing off against the Clippers on Saturday is a real test. If Gobert were playing, that would be a game I’d call a must-win. As things currently sit, though, it could go either way. If the Jazz bring the effort they brought in two losses against the Thunder or in this past week’s two wins, that should be enough to beat LA at home. But much less than that and you’re playing with fire. The Clips will have the two best players on the floor, which means that anything less than a focused, disciplined effort won’t get it done.
Utah is heavily favored to take care of business against Philly on Monday, and they even get a slight edge when they visit Minnesota. But both teams will bring energy, and the Wolves in particular have some known Jazz-killers lurking in their rotation.
Still, a 3-0 week is within reach for Utah, and that would be huge for a team that should get Gobert back sometime after the calendar flips.
Really only one way to go as we send you off to enjoy the holidays.
And, as a special bonus, here is Book’s priceless explanation of his Karate Kid-esque celebration to the dunk3.