It was a 3-1 week for the Jazz, now winners of seven of their last eight. Let’s dive right into seven stories, trends and tidbits in our weekly summary of all things Jazz.
There are a lot of reasons to think that the Jazz will be fine, early health drama notwithstanding. They’re five wins above .500 despite their preferred starters seeing just 12 total minutes together thus far. They own the conference’s fifth-best point differential. And they possess a top-10 offense and defense, something only the Clippers and Warriors can say. And they
But another reason why the Jazz have solidified their playoff chances despite an active infirmary: they’re taking care of business, beating the teams who would seek to steal a postseason spot from them.
Tuesday’s win over Phoenix moved Utah to 7-1 against Western Conference teams not currently in the top 8. That’s important given the division we’re already seeing between the West’s haves and have-nots. The gap that already exists between #8 Portland and the #9 Lakers — 10.5 percentage points — indicates that, even if the Jazz were to slide, they’d really have to cross a broad chasm to fall out altogether.
For Utah to stumble past the ninth spot, somebody not in the top eight has to catch them, and their early performance against those clubs is good insurance against that happening, plus will help them in terms of tiebreakers should something insane happen. Already, they’ve got a 2-1 lead on the season series with Denver, 2-0 against the Lakers1, and 1-0 against Dallas, Phoenix and Minnesota. They have yet to face Sacramento or New Orleans.
Now, the flipside of that 7-1 mark is that it means the Jazz are 7-8 in all other games. Ultimately, they should get better there as their personnel and rotation situations normalize. But in the meantime, they’ve done a good job, despite everything, at protecting themselves against the seven current lotto-projected teams. Their playoff odds reflect that. Going into Thursday’s game against Golden State, Utah’s playoff chances stand at 99.1% as measured by Basketball Reference’s SRS-driven model, and FiveThirtyEight’s CARM-ELO forecast says that a Jazz return to the postseason is 97% likely.
Now, is just making the playoffs enough progress to keep Utah’s young core engaged in the process and convince stars like Gordon Hayward to stay? Probably not. To actually give themselves a shot at being competitive next spring, Utah is going to have to improve on its 2-5 start against the other seven likely Western playoff teams. Each of those losses is understandable in a vacuum, but that simply won’t be good enough for the Jazz to capture a more favorable seed and give themselves a chance to win a round.
Top 8 WC teams’ record vs. other 7, through 12/7/16:
Utah will probably need a fuller complement of players to be able to improve upon that 2-5 mark, which will likely get worse before it gets better since Golden State will get to play a team on Thursday that is without five of its best seven or eight players. The Jazz will also have chances coming up to face the Thunder, the Warriors again, and Memphis before the year is out. And January brings three more chances to improve against the Western Conference playoff field, including two more against Memphis that will wrap the season series.
Remaining Jazz games vs. WC top 8, by month:
This is a playoff team, but how high they go will depend largely on their performance in games like those.
“We’re going to suit up the media.”
-Jazz coach Quin Snyder, laughing about Utah’s ongoing injury woes as his club prepared to face the Warriors without five key guys.
“The injury thing, it hasn’t smiled on us,” the coach continued. “I think we’ve handled it really well up to this point, and it’s why we’ve had a little bit of success. We just have to keep grinding on it and not feel sorry for ourselves, because no one else is.”
Snyder also openly acknowledged something I’ve been hinting at: Hayward has been playing with a broken finger. That makes his recent stretch — averaging 27-5-4 over the last nine games, with 48.7% three-point shooting — even more impressive. But it’s also cause for concern. Broken fingers don’t heal very quickly when you’re constantly using them, as Kobe Bryant learned in the 2009-10 season, when he painfully played with an avulsion fracture in his shooting hand for months.
Hayward has been ruled out of Thursday’s game against the Warriors. Beyond that, it’s anybody’s best guess just how long that situation will linger or how much it will affect the 26-year-old2.
That’s Rudy Gobert’s percentile as a pick-and-roll finisher, based on the 1.39 points he produces per 100 plays he finishes with a shot, turnover or drawn shooting foul as the roll man, per NBA stats. Of guys who at least match Gobert’s 1.7 possessions per game used that way, only Tristan Thompson and Joel Embiid are more efficient.
Gobert is also elite as a transition finisher — 97th percentile — as are Joe Ingles (99th) and Trey Lyles (95th).
How good has Rudy Gobert been this season? At some point we’ll give him the longform breakdown treatment, but for now, suffice it to say Gobert has figured out a way to be an offensive contributor while he continues to patrol the lane like virtually nobody else in the business. No player has a bigger difference between his on-court ORtg and the ORtg when he sits — the Jazz offense is 10.8 points better per 100 plays when Rudy is in. Who’d have guessed that even a year ago?
Jazz 105, Nuggets 98: Gordon Hayward
Sometime’s the MVP of the game and the most memorable performance of the game are the same thing, and on those nights, the game ball exercise is easy work. Hayward had his best quarter ever in the third while Utah was putting Denver away: 21 points on 8/11 shooting, with two threes, three free-throws, three boards and a steal. He became the first Jazz player to go for 30+ in three consecutive games in almost exactly six years3.
Jazz 107, Lakers 101: Rudy Gobert
An unusual number of game ball candidates contended throughout this one. Rodney Hood nailed a couple of tough jumpers when Utah’s offense had gotten stuck late, but overall, I have a hard time handing the leather to someone for purely offensive reasons when they didn’t even manage a point per shot (16 points on 17 attempts)4. So Gobert gets another, based on strong overall D on a night when Utah guards were way too willing to simply accompany drivers to the lane and then hand them off to a big. Rudy blocked five different Lakers and turned in a 14 & 17 double-double, although Hayward deserves mention for an outstanding line — 23-6-5-2 — that has somehow become just an average night for the Jazz star.
Jazz 112, Suns 105: Rudy Gobert
The career-high 22 points. The 10-of-11 free throw performance. The 6-for-19 rim defense, including four blocks. The team-best +20. The rare jumper. And one hell of a game-sealing exclamation point. Case closed. Although Boris Diaw was also in the mix because of the impact his 13-point, 6-assist night had. And Hayward’s 18-point second half (he had 28-5-4 overall, with three steals) is made even more impressive by the fact that he had his hand X-rayed in the middle of it.
This week’s playbook section — where we look at the Xs and Os behind a Jazz score — is dedicated to the role players.
We haven’t talked enough about what some of the other guys on the Jazz are doing well, and this week there are a couple of good examples of scoring plays that feature smart reads by guys we don’t necessarily always feature in this space.
Quin Snyder loves sets where three players converge at the elbow or the nail, confusing the defense as to who the beneficiary of the action really is.
In this case, the Jazz set up what looks like a high post split, but really play it like a tight ram screen — and don’t worry, I’ll define those. Splitting the post is an action where two guys cut in opposite directions over the same stationary player, in this case Trey Lyles. But Joe Johnson doesn’t actually complete the cut — it’s misdirection, and he’s really there to screen for Joe Ingles.
Danilo Gallinari doesn’t know that though. He is worried about cutting off the Johnson cut, so he goes all the way under. Because of that, he’s out of position to hedge, show, trap or even shade the second pick: Joe for Joe.
This is ram screen action. A ram screen, briefly put, is when a pick is set for the guy who’s about to set a pick. Screenee becomes screener5. By getting the defender of first screen off balance, they eliminate the help that would otherwise exist on the second screen, and it results in a fairly clean path for Ingles. The weakside corner defender caves way in6 to help, but Boris Diaw makes an on-the-money pass anyway and Ingles is able to finish in traffic.
Now let’s talk Johnson.
Jazz ball handlers love to snake the pick & roll — meaning once your guy decides to follow you over the screen, you move laterally and slow down to keep him on your back while you zigzag into the paint, reading the D. Some teams call this putting the defender in jail. The problem is, sometimes the Jazz wings and guards are so anxious to snake that they step right in front of the rolling screener. They get in the way of the roll, and it also means dribbling back into the path of the second defender: the screener’s man.
But watch Johnson execute it perfectly. After he gets the dribble hand-off from Gobert, he first lets the big guy cut, then follows him in. This allows Rudy to set another screen for him in the paint.
Show ’em how it’s done, old vet.
The Jazz actually have a fairly light seven days ahead between now and the next SC7, playing the three middle games of a five-game homestand.
Thursday vs. Warriors: Assuming Utah will again be entering this one without their full complement, they should approach this as a chance to measure themselves against an elite team. Although GSW coach Steve Kerr told a local reporter that he expected to rest some guys at some point on the Dubs’ current 5-games-in-7-nights trip.
Saturday vs. Kings: It’s a little odd that the Jazz have yet to face Sacramento. They’ll do so twice in the next two weeks in Salt Lake City, then face them twice in California next March. The Kings have played a tough early schedule and again find themselves struggling: 8-13 with a below average offense and defense. The foul-happy Jazz will have to be mindful that the Kings get to the line a lot, but they also put opponents there. Might be a late night at The Viv.
Wednesday vs. Thunder: The most important game of the week comes after three days of rest, so Utah will have to find a way to avoid coming out rusty. It’s starting to look as though Utah, Houston and OKC are going to wind up as the Western Conference’s second tier, so battles between those teams are going matter greatly come April. Also, Russell Westbrook is doing ridiculous things: he’s currently on pace to become the first player in 55 years to average a triple-double with over 30 points per game.
— NBA (@NBA) December 7, 2016