The Jazz are rolling, with a 6-1 record in their last seven. Even if their visit to the reigning champs on a back-to-back could slow that train a little, Utah’s playoff push is looking fairly strong. Which is why we start this week’s all-things-Jazz recap by talking about why some fears are at least partially unfounded.
It looks increasingly like the Jazz are going to face off against the Los Angeles Clippers in next month’s playoffs. It also sounds increasingly like that matchup is freaking people out.
Utah can’t realistically catch Houston for the No. 3 seed. With the Rockets’ schedule, it would take a massive collapse for them to lose more than five or six of their remaining 14 games, and even if they did go 8-6 to close, Utah would have to play near perfect (12-2) to tie them and move into third by virtue of the tiebreaker.
Likewise, it’s starting to look like the Jazz are safe from sliding to six or seven, using the same logic. It just wouldn’t take too many more wins — seven, maybe eight — for the Jazz to reach a total that the Thunder and Grizzlies can’t realistically tie. Just winning their games against sub-.500 opponents would pretty much protect the Jazz from slipping further than the No. 5 spot.
So the Jazz will almost surely play the Clippers1. That fact is exciting unaffiliated basketball nerds who see a competitive matchup there and like the chippiness and budding hatred between these two teams. But many Jazz fans aren’t that excited.
Sure. I get it. Before Monday’s 114-108 win, Utah has lost 17 of the last 18 against the Clips.
But it’s time to stop fearing these guys. Thirteen of those losses came while the Jazz were in various stages of their rebuilding process. This year’s two losses against the Clips certainly weren’t encouraging, but the Jazz were missing star Gordon Hayward in the first one, and in the second one they were without starter Rodney Hood and playing their fifth game in eight nights.
More than that, it’s just time to start believing that the Jazz are in that class now. The Clippers are a very good team — so are the Jazz. In fact, the two play very similarly in a lot of different ways. Both are pick-and-roll oriented teams that are efficient and deliberate in the half court and run selectively. Both are teams with size, but don’t live in the paint because they use that size to suck defenses in. Both get to line often, make shots off the catch, and are above average at keeping opponents out of the paint.
Several of those similarities are evident when you look at their league ranks.
Where the two teams don’t have a lot in common is on defense — Utah is much, much better. The Jazz have the third best overall defense, and LA’s is fairly average (17th). In other words, a Jazz-Clipper matchup is really a question of two teams with some similar offensive structures and a huge difference in defensive quality. Also, the Clippers could find something playing under immense pressure if things start to go awry, since they know that another short playoff run this year in particular would raise some existential questions. Which is why 90% of hoopniks outside of Utah see this matchup as intriguing.
Of course, what has some Jazz fans shaking in their boots is somewhat more qualitative than that. The experience of the Clippers’ core and their five straight postseason trips are what intimidate those rooting for a group that includes a lot of playoff virgins.
But guess what — this is the playoffs. Unless you’re a top seed, you’re going to play some good teams. The reason the Jazz wanted to get to the postseason this year was to begin to test and prove themselves against that level of competition. If you’re in playoff series battling with good teams, you’re doing what you are supposed to do as a ball club. You know who understands that? The Clippers.
“Yeah, we would like whoever is the 30th seed,” coach Doc Rivers of LA joked to the Associated Press after Monday’s loss in Utah. “We’d prefer that.”
He continued: “Other than that, you’ve just got to get ready in the playoffs. I’ve always laughed at three (seed), four, let’s get five. That’s ridiculous. If you’re trying to win it all, you’re going to play the good teams eventually. You just have to be ready for it.”
That’s the bottom line. This is the playoffs. The Jazz wanted to get to the point where they could battle with the Western Conference’s best teams. Now they’re on the verge of doing that.
The degree of difficulty will vary depending on whether they get the version of the Clips that opened the season 22-8 or the version that’s 18-20 since, including 5-6 since Chris Paul returned from his latest injury. But either way, the Clippers are good. So are the Jazz. So don’t freak out… geek out. This is going to be educational, revealing… and fun.
Speaking of LA, the Clippers’ three losses in their last five games — including two to sub-.500 teams — served to further ensconce Utah in the four spot. The Jazz now trail No. 3 Houston by four in the loss column, and have a three to five-game advantage over the three teams behind them. Gaps of three to five losses aren’t enormous, but they’re pretty hard to make up over a 14-game stretch.
Of course, the Clippers — just three back — have the advantage of having a game left against Utah, which means they’re not entirely reliant on other people to inflict some damage on Utah’s closing record. But the Jazz are done with the Rockets, Thunder and Grizzlies, which makes jockeying across those gaps a little harder since the trailing teams don’t really have a chance to control their destiny.
Here’s how the 3-to-7 race is shaping up with 14 games left (OKC has 15).
An interesting thing to note here: San Antonio actually has a lot of opportunity to influence this race. They still have games left against all of the teams slotted fourth through seventh, including two against the Jazz and three against Memphis. The Spurs are somewhat unexpectedly tied up in a tight battle for the No. 1 seed, so they probably won’t be on cruise control down the stretch.
Another team that could help the Jazz is Dallas. Utah is done with the Mavs, but they’ve been playing better and have multiple chanced to take a swing at the teams nipping at Utah’s heels. They’re fighting to keep their faint2 playoff hopes alive, and they still play the Clippers in both locales, host the Thunder, and visit Memphis twice. In other words, if you’re a Jazz fan compiling your late-season rooting guide… Go Mavs!
The Jazz use skip passes and flare screens a lot. And they run side pick-and-rolls a lot. Against Detroit, they married the two tactics to put Rudy Gobert wide open in front of the rim.
Skip passes are passes that go over the top of the defense. They work particularly well when headed toward a spot shooter — who can either let loose or fake and go, throwing the defense into recovery mode. They also work in conjunction with flare screen action. A flare screen is a pick that allows a player to cut to the outside. It’s not uncommon for a player to take that flare screen, catch the pass over the top, and then flow straight into the next action, such as a P&R. But watch how impossible it is to guard when those actions happen as one.
This is really an off-ball flare and roll. It’s not a flare screen that flows into a side pick and roll. The two actions are really done at the same time. Notice that Gobert has already set the screen, turned and started his rim dive before the pass even arrives. The side P&R portion of this play is happening WHILE the skip pass is happening.
The side P&R is lethal anyway because there are only so many places you can bring the help from. But look at this still from the moment George Hill receives the skip pass: it’s already a 2-on-1 play before the ball even arrives, and Gobert’s man is full committed to Hill.
Boris Diaw really makes this play with a spot-on delivery that allowed Hill and Gobert to continue the play without breaking rhythm at all. He basically fired a pass into a P&R in progress, and was spot on. When Jazz fans ask me why Diaw’s +/- with other starters is so good despite his modest stat lines, the answer is plays like this where he just facilitates the Jazz being good.
“I was concerned about them at the start of the season and they’ve proven me wrong. They’ve proven that they are a legitimate team, that they can be an offensive powerhouse to match their defense in certain situations… And now I’m curious about what they’ll do to sustain this.”
– ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, a convert to the gospel of Quin Snyder and Dennis Lindsey
The ESPN crew went long on the Jazz in a TrueHoop podcast this week, and it’s absolutely must-listen for Utah fans. They covered some of the big basketball, lineup and contract questions that matter both today and going forward.
That’s a nice compliment from someone who was a vocal detractor five months ago, saying the Jazz hadn’t won anything yet to deserve the benefit of the doubt. But the “what they’ll do to sustain this” part of Windhorst’s quote is the operative part, because most of the conversation revolved around how Utah will (or won’t) be able to keep this roster together as guys become eligible for massive raises.
Here are some other notable quotes from the conversation:
If all of that produces too much anxiety for you, let’s end on a positive quote from Windhorst: “These are good problems to have. When you have a lot of players who have value in the market, it means you’ve done a good job with your team.”
It’s well worth a listen.
Jazz 114, Clippers 108: Hayward
The masses told me this probably had to be Hayward, which is probably fair. When you drop 27 in a playoff preview and perform admirably when switched onto bigs3, smalls and everything in between, that’s probably Spalding material. I just thought there were other guys who would get some chatter. Like Hill, who had 12 of his 19 in that 40-point third quarter the Jazz used to pull ahead. Or Joe Ingles, as much for his moxie as for his 18 points, the third highest point total of his career. But yeah, Hayward is the logical choice here.
Jazz 97, Pistons 83: Hayward
This one was less controversial. Hayward’s line (25-9-6) stood out, but so did his smooth shooting and effortless decision-making when the Pistons decided to load up on Gobert’s rolls4. It was just one of those nights when it wasn’t that hard to see who the best player on the floor was. He even got an ovation on the road when he left the court in the final minute — ostensibly from Jazz fans in attendance, but the Detroit announcers made it sound like even some Pistons people were appreciative of the performance they had just seen.
It’s been a while since we’ve updated the leaderboard.
In Utah’s past two games, the Clippers (15) and Pistons (17) allowed the Jazz to take a ton of open or wide open threes, meaning with the nearest defender at least four feet away per NBA’s shot tracking. Utah canned 22 of them, or 69 percent. More and more, teams are so concerned about cutting off the Jazz’s rim rolls and drives into the paint, and the Jazz offense is flowing smoothly to open guys as a result of all that help teams have to bring to the middle. The presence of one of the NBA’s best roll men in Gobert and multiple dangerous ball handlers is prompting teams to have to leave shooters.
The Jazz have won six straight with Gobert on the court, dropping only the Thunder game he missed due to a leg injury. His net rating during this 6-1 stretch for Utah is an absurd +14.9, best among rotation players. Hayward, Derrick Favors and Hill also have double-digit positive ratings over that stretch, followed by backup points guards Raul Neto and Dante Exum. The only players with a negative net rating over that stretch are Trey Lyles (-10.0), Jeff Withey (-7.8) and Rodney Hood (-4.8).
Rudy Gobert: elite roll man, DPOY candidate, burgeoning offensive weapon… and heart-breaker.
— Keith Joseph III (@kwjiii) March 12, 2017
Haha Happy Birthday! https://t.co/UOVDlapzER
— Rudy Gobert (@rudygobert27) March 12, 2017