Salt City Seven: Gobert & the Jazz Getting Back to Form + Six Other Items from the Week in Jazzland

February 2nd, 2018 | by Dan Clayton

Gobert dunks against the Warriors.

The slump, for the moment at least, is broken.

The Jazz, who were 4-15 over a six-week stretch, have won five of their seven. They played just twice since our last edition, and they were both convincing affairs, probably the best two wins of the season. First, they went on the road to Toronto, where they stifled and swarmed an elite Raptors team with their best collective defensive effort in weeks. Then, they returned home to wallop the reigning champs behind a great game plan and an aggressive outing from Ricky Rubio.

In this week’s Salt City Seven, we’ll talk about some of the reasons behind their sudden turnaround, how it impacts their playoff changes, and what they might be thinking about doing as the February 8 trade deadline approaches. Dive in!

 

A quick(ish) exploration of a prominent theme from the week or the current state of Utah Jazz basketball.

Many catalysts have contributed to the club’s recent turnaround. Rubio’s improved play, the return of Joe Ingles’ usual shooting stroke, and Donovan Mitchell’s continued scoring prowess have all lifted the Jazz out of a funk that lasted nearly a month and a half.

But don’t overthink this one. The primary factor in Utah suddenly looking like a different kind of team is fairly obvious. 

Life is just easier with Rudy Gobert around.

Since the Jazz’s All-NBA center returned to action six games ago, the Jazz have allowed 100.7 points per 100 possessions, tied for second in the league over that stretch. Factor in that the half dozen games in question have included bouts with elite teams like Golden State and Toronto, and the mark becomes even more impressive. 

The results became even more astounding once the big man really got his rhythm back. While he contributed right away — he came back with a 23-and-14 performance in a loss — it took a couple of games to see his full impact on display. He looked a little tentative and skittish about contact at times. That’s totally understandable, by the way: the franchise center has missed half his team’s season so far because of bad luck around other bodies. But as the confidence came back, the Jazz defense has once again found itself centered around an unbelievable deterrent, shot eraser and helper.

With Gobert patrolling the back line of the defense, Utah has empowered its guards and wings to play an aggressive, ball-hawking style of defense. Against the likes of Steph Curry and Kyle Lowry, the Jazz intermittently trapped pick-and-rolls and jumped passing lanes. It’s the version of the Jazz that fans giddily imagined at the start of the season: a squad that, offensive issues aside, could control games on the defensive end.

Watch how the Jazz trust Gobert to use his length to cover both the rolling big and his man until Derrick Favors can hustle back after trapping. This allows them to aggressive about getting the ball out of Curry’s hands without having weakside defenders leave shooters. This is a luxury.

The real boon of having Gobert back is that players can get back to being who they are. Favors has spent half of the Jazz’s season so far doing his best Gobert impression. He has played well in the absence of his frontcourt mate, offering consistent scoring and above-average paint protection. But Gobert being back allows Favors to be Favors. Rubio can be Rubio. When a player of Gobert’s caliber is out, it’s hard for players not to think about filling a gap. Now, Jazz players players are playing freer and looser, contributing in ways they can most comfortably contribute to winning.

There’s no telling where the Jazz season could go from here. The roster could look different after next week’s trade deadline passes, and even if no major moves are made, Utah’s priorities may shift if they remain outside the playoff picture. But for now at least, they look more like the version of the team that they thought they’d put on the floor. And the record looks more like the results they expected, too.

 

Words from a Jazz player or coach about a relevant or timely topic.

“Not true at all.”

– Favors, on Twitter, responding to the notion that he has notified the Jazz that he is definitely not returning next season

Let’s talk trade deadline for a minute.

Favors challenging the widely held belief that his Jazz career will not continue past June 30 is certainly newsworthy stuff as the deadline nears. He has been an oft-discussed trade chip, largely because people assumed Utah would try to get value for him before he inevitably rides off into the sunset. But, if this four-word tweet is to be taken at face value, that sunset may still be a ways off. In the meantime, he’ll continue to climb up the franchise games-played ranking.

So maybe Fav isn’t ready to donate all his Jazz gear to the thrift store’s big-and-tall section. He has seemingly developed some fun chemistry with rookie building block Donovan Mitchell, and the Jazz are playing better with him and Rudy Gobert both back in their usual roles.

Still, the “Favors is gone anyway” tack has been repeated enough by those connected to Jazz decision-makers that it might be a representation of Utah’s intent even if it’s not true from the Favors side of the equation. We know that Quin Snyder is reluctant to play Favors and Gobert together, and that puts a limit on the former’s role going forward. It’s pretty evident that the Jazz would welcome the opportunity to play a shooting four next to Gobert, which is why they were after Nikola Mirotic before he landed with New Orleans this week.

Mirotic coming off the board does increase the likelihood that the Jazz play out the rest of the season with Favors; there simply aren’t that many starting-caliber bigs who make 38% or more of their threes, can hold their own within a team defensive plan, and are available midseason in exchange for Utah’s non-Mitchell, non-Gobert assets. And if he does stay past the deadline, it will be interesting to see if he backs up his terse tweet by showing a legitimate interest in staying long-term.

For more trade talk, check out the latest SCH podcast, where I’m joined by Ken Clayton, my brother from the same mother. We’ll also do another trade/cap Q&A on Monday, so be thinking of questions!

 

A look at the Jazz’s postseason probabilities

Utah has improved its chances of a postseason appearance with a 4-1 stretch that included two victories over elite teams, but they’re still long-shots. And since they need TWO of the Nuggets, Pelicans and Clippers to falter, they don’t really control their own destiny. That said, those three teams do have some tough stretches ahead.

  • Denver’s last six before the All-Star break include home games against the Warriors and Spurs, and visits to Houston and Milwaukee. And their first two after the break are home dates with the Spurs and Rockets.
  • The Pelicans, without DeMarcus Cousins but with newly added Mirotic ready to help, actually have eight games before All-Star weekend, five of which are on the road. The toughest opponents in that stretch are the first two: OKC and Minnesota, their road back-to-back this weekend.
  • The Blake Griffin-less Clippers have two home games against lottery teams before they head out for seven straight roadies: four before and three after the All-Star break. They may also be trading 2017 All-Star DeAndre Jordan or leading scorer Lou Williams.

It would still take a 20-12 finish for Utah to reach 42 wins, though, so the Jazz have to sustain their recent strong play over an extended stretch before they start worrying too much about what other teams are doing.

 

Stats and figures that help tell prominent stories from the week.

715 days

That’s how long it had been since the Warriors had last lost a game by 30 or more points. Kevin Durant still resided in Oklahoma City at that point, but the Warriors were still in the middle of a special season, their historic 73-win campaign. The eventual runners-up of the NBA Finals, the Dubs got surprised by a plugged-in Portland team. Damian Lillard scored 51 as the Blazers won by 32. Before that, you have to go clear back to the Draymond Green’s rookie year to find the previous 30-point blowout loss.

56%

Ingles has a lot to do with Utah waking up from its January malaise, too. After a nearly month-long stretch where he shot a hair under 29 percent from deep, he has canned 56 percent over the course of the Jazz’s 5-2 run. The Jazz are 15-9 in games where Ingles has at least three triples. He has also become one of Utah’s primary pick-and-roll creators, and the Jazz have outscored those six opponents by 60 points in Jingles’ minutes. Yeah, he’s pretty important to Utah playing well.

 

A quick dissection of an awesome bit of Jazz offense from the week.

One of the recurring themes in the plays we have highlighted in this space is that it is often hard for the defense to suss out where the real meat of the action is and what’s just fluff or distraction. That’s the case again in this installment.

Teams can’t ignore on-ball action to help guard against something happening on the weak side of the floor. If they do, someone involved in that action gets an open shot or an unencumbered rim run. Quin Snyder knows this, so he often scripts stuff in such a way that the on-ball stuff is, in a way, just a decoy. Whenever you see the Jazz time a cut or off-ball screen to occur simultaneously with whatever is happening on the ball side, you can bet that the idea is to occupy would-be helpers.

Take, for example, this bucket from Donovan Mitchell’s big third quarter against Golden State.

Utah might have a clever internal name for this, but really the components here are just a fake pick-and-roll timed with a weakside curl off of a pindown. Jonas Jerebko acts like he’s going to screen for Joe Ingles, but at the last second diverts to the corner. Their two defenders have to be attentive to all the ways that particular action can play out, so neither is available to show on Mitchell when he uses the Gobert pindown to curl around into the lane.

This was probably Utah’s desired outcome — their best scorer going toward the rim — but this is undoubtedly in Snyder’s playbook as an multi-option play that gives Utah a good shot no matter how the defense responds. Had a ball-side defender slipped into the lane to slow Mitchell, then Ingles and Jerebko have a 2-on-1. If Gobert’s man had committed to helping on the Mitchell catch-and-go, Gobert is there. Steph Curry can come off of Rubio — he does this a little at the very end, but like Zaza Pachulia, he never really commits to helping or staying home — then the Jazz have an open kick to the corner. (That’s probably the best outcome for Golden State in hindsight, but remember that at the time it happens, they aren’t really sure what it is they’re guarding on this bang-bang play.)

This was the Jazz’s first offensive possession after a timeout, so credit Snyder for another solid ATO1 play. It also came at an important juncture for the game, as Utah was holding off the last vestiges of of a Warriors run.

 

Doling out credit for Jazz wins, one imaginary Spalding at a time.

Utah had light duty since our last SC7, with just two games in the past 168 hours. But they won both, which gives us some work to do in the Game Ball allocation department.

Jazz 97, Clippers 93: Rudy Gobert

The popular answer here was that Rubio canned the game winner — just the third of its kind all season by a Jazz player — and therefore takes home the game ball by default. But on balance, nobody impacted the game like Gobert. Rudy had looked a bit timid in his first games back, and started out a bit that way in Canada. But then he responded to the challenge of Jonas Valanciunas. The big Lithuanian had a nice night, but Gobert made him work, and eventually limited his playing time with fouls that he spent trying to look after Stifle. Rudy’s line was 18 & 15 for the night, and it was also Utah’s best team defensive outing by far. That’s not all about Gobert, but having him as an anchor changes so much. Mitchell also deserves mention for his 26, even though he struggled again in the fourth quarter.

Jazz 129, Warriors 99: Ricky Rubio

A big win over a great team always requires multiple awesome contributions, so any number of candidates could make their case. Rubio and Gobert were really co-MVPs defensively. The latter visibly affected Golden State’s psychology around the basket, but that was only part of Snyder’s scheme for the game, which also relied on suffocating pressure on Curry. On the offensive end, Ingles and Rubio were the co-MVPs, with Mitchell adding a hot quarter to negate any attempt at a surge by the visitors. Ingles punished an initially passive defensive approach by Golden State, and had all of his 20 by the early third. Rubio was just awesome on that end. It helps that his shot was falling, but more than that, he was aggressive, decisive and energetic. He had the best line of the night (23-5-11, game-best +31), but it was the overall impact he had on both ends of the court in what was likely his best Jazz game yet. Derrick Favors was superb on both ends as well.

 

Because, at the end of the day, this should be fun.

Let’s wrap the week with the trickiest of Tricky Ricky’s plays from the big road win in Toronto. The pass at the :30 mark of this Jazz video is… wow.

First of all, he dares to make this pass right up the gut, with three Raptors flanking the path of the ball. But notice how the ball zips forward some 50 feet, and then on the bounce it just… stops. That means Rubio, while quickly doing the mental math on a length of the court pass between multiple defenders, also had the presence of mind to put a little mustard on it so that the pass would bound back to a streaking Royce O’Neale. This seriously might be the assist of the year.

Salt City Seven 2017-18 Archive

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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