SC7: Joe Solving a Big Man Issue, Rudy, Playoff Race, More

March 30th, 2017 | by Dan Clayton
Gary Dineen via utahjazz.com

Gary Dineen via utahjazz.com

The Jazz’s 2-1 week certainly didn’t lack intrigue. You’re in the right place to break it all down: our weekly recap of the Jazz from various angles.

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Let’s take a quick moment1 and acknowledge how lucky the Jazz are to have Joe Johnson for this playoff push.

The Jazz’s month has been marked by a big man crisis. That’s not really up for debate at this point. Boris Diaw performed well on Wednesday to help Utah score a win in Sacramento, but even with that game factored in, his March has been rough. In 15 games this month, the team goes from +6.9 per 100 possessions with Diaw sitting to -7.0 when he plays. No rotation player has seen that kind of negative swing. Meanwhile, Trey Lyles is shooting 18% from both the field and three-point land since February 9, and he has more DNP-CDs than three-pointers over that time span. The team also plays winning ball without him (+3.2) and struggles when he plays (-4.1) in the month of March.

With those two in their respective funks, the Jazz have struggled at times to ride out the absence of starting forward Derrick Favors, who has missed 11 straight and whose return doesn’t feel imminent.

Enter Joe Johnson, a lifesaver for a team needing to squeeze productive power forward minutes out of its injury-riddled roster. Johnson has become a full-time four now, and the team is better for it, especially given the recent play of their alternative options.

Joe is the Jazz’s sixth-leading per-game scorer, but that undersells how important he is in certain key stretches where the Jazz just can’t find their offense and turn to the guy who has manufactured 19,941 NBA points to date. He rarely explodes, so it’s easy for him to go unnoticed. But he has come through for the Jazz more often than not recently; he has scored between eight and 17 points nine times during a 12-game March2. His minutes in March are up to 27.2 per game as the Jazz need him to shoulder a bigger load and slide permanently to the four. He has responded with 10.4 points per outing and a grundle of big, timely buckets.

Take Wednesday in Sacramento for example. He hadn’t had the best night, but he scored five straight in the early fourth as part of the 15-4 run Utah used to seal their 46th win. First he sank a three from a standstill right in the defender’s face, and on the next play he took a smaller defender to the low block and even when the help came, he calmly dropped a floater over three defenders.

The guy is just a professional scorer, and the Jazz need that sometimes. But he’s doing other things, too. Coach Quin Snyder has commented on how, because of Joe’s strength, the Jazz trust him to guard any fours and not just be a situational small-ball solution.

Like other guys, he’ll be a bit better when Favors’ eventual return restores him to his typical role. Right now, the extended minutes and long bruisings against top NBA four men is visibly wearing on him some. His shooting is down since the break, and it’s hard to blame him when you consider everything that the Jazz are asking the near-36-year-old to do.

But they’re a better team when he plays, and he keeps saving their bacon by helping them find water in the dessert.

 

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As of Thursday morning, the prognosticators at Inpredictable.com give Utah a 40% chance at the No. 4 seed, 40% odds at No. 5 and a 19% chance at slipping to sixth.

Seeds three and seven are still mathematically possible, but extremely unlikely. Houston needs just two wins (or Jazz losses) to claim the third spot, and Utah can protect itself from slipping to seventh with a combination of three wins or Grizz losses.

Here’s what those teams’ schedules look like:

Jazz need a 4-3 finish to hit 50 wins

Jazz need a 4-3 finish to hit 50 wins

Teams to root for: Phoenix still hosts both the Clippers and Thunder, Dallas can help in its trips to Memphis and L.A., and the Jazz really need Houston to come up with an April 10 victory over Chris Paul and company.

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“We’ve got guys that compete, but some of us don’t compete. Some of us just think about scoring. That’s what it is. Coach keeps repeating it: We’ve just got to compete. We’re too nice.”

– Rudy Gobert, calling out the team after their fourth loss in five games

Picking the most newsworthy quote was easy this week. This was part of Rudy’s now-infamous diatribe.

In a hotly-discussed postgame media scrum, Gobert expressed frustration that some teammates weren’t interested in making the small sacrifices and winning basketball plays that lead to wins.

“I think everybody needs to think about making plays for the team, making winning plays, before thinking about how many points we’re going to score and stuff like that,” he continued. “There’s going to be some games where you don’t score. But are you going to take a charge for a teammate? Are you going to come and box out DeAndre (Jordan) for a teammate?”

Gobert has since clarified that, “It wasn’t targeting somebody particular. It was more about the team.” But he left enough bread crumbs there for us to guess at what specific plays triggered his disappointment. Take his box-out comment specifically; there were a finite number of plays where someone failed to box Jordan out, and Gobert’s conspicuous reaction here makes it obvious that at least that part of his quote was in response to this play:

Utah’s game plan for limiting Blake Griffin was to switch a lot of pick-and-rolls involving Blake, but when that would result in tough mismatches, they’d have Gobert shade the play to dissuade Blake from attacking. That’s what they do here when a drag screen in transition results in George Hill guarding the 6’9″ power forward.

So whose job was it to get to DJ here? Joe Ingles can’t leave Redick, and since he’s the eventual shooter when the help from Gobert forces a kickout, you can’t really expect him to box out under the rim, too. Johnson is guarding CP on the opposite side of the court from DJ, so he can’t leave. Gordon Hayward is on the strong-side wing (can’t help off the strong wing), and then tracks Luc Mbah a Moute’s movements in and through the paint. And then there’s Hill.

Hill correctly takes the Blake switch and does a good job right until the point where Gobert takes Blake from him. And then he just sort of… stops guarding. By the time the shot goes up, Rudy is on the opposite side of the rim from DJ and gets in position to seal his area for the board, but nobody slid over to take his man while he took Hill’s. Since this was a play that Gobert mentioned specifically, it’s safe to assume that Hill was at least one of the teammates Gobert was questioning — and to assume that he knows it.

It would make sense that Hill was at least partially on Gobert’s mind that afternoon in LA. He had just posted a -29 with 4-of-11 shooting, one assist, one rebound and four turnovers. By one measure, he was the worst Jazz player of the calendar week.

But that being said, I also take Gobert at face value when he says this wasn’t about one particular player, but about the team’s mental fortitude as a whole to make the right play every time. “We do it, but we do it by stretches,” Gobert said. “We need to do it right from the beginning of the game. I think when we do that, we’re very, very, very good.”

I also loved Ingles’ quote in shrugging off all the drama: “We know who we are. We know what makes us good.”

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Jazz 108, Pelicans 100 – Joe Ingles

Jingles did his best Hayward impression with a 19-4-4 outing, and he also sank all five of his threes. Gobert would be totally sane pick, too, with 20 & 19 (just 11 shots) and five blocks to boot. If anything, Jose English’s perfect 10-point fourth quarter3 broke the tie for me. Rodney Hood was also very good, and the Jazz’s minutes with Joe Johnson at the four were predictably marvelous.

Jazz 112, Kings 82 – Shelvin Mack

Some nights the MVP of the game gets the leather. Some nights it’s the guy whose story kind of defined the outing. This was a storyline pick. Plenty of guys have a stronger case if this is just about picking the MVP of the game. Hayward (20-7-5) was very good, Hood (18 pts, 5/5 from three) had his best shooting night in forever, Gobert (16 & 15) protected the paint even though he didn’t get a block, and Ingles (five assists, +32) was the primary playmaker for long stretches. But most of you told me that Mack’s story was bigger than all that. Prior to last night, Mack had played just three minutes in the previous 19 Jazz games. So for him to preside over the game-sealing 15-4 run and finish with 14 points and four assists was the key to surviving on a night when all of Utah’s other points were injured or struggling.

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Since Rodney Hood was shafted in the Game Ball discussion despite having one of his best two-game stretches of the season, let’s make room for him here.

The Jazz start this with some point-wing screening action designed to get a smaller guard switched onto the 6’8″ Hood. The former Dukie then takes his new defender to the post for what appears to be a post-up with a size advantage, but instead comes up for the dribble hand-off. When his man tries to get through the screen, Gobert simply rescreens so Hood can curl around for a shot he can easily put in over a smaller defender.

Utah has run this basic 1-3 to pindown action a lot for Hood, usually starting with some sort of action where he and the point guard screen for each other. For example, in the first play of this same game, Hill goes to set a backscreen for for Hood, but instead of using it to cut perpendicular to the baseline, he cuts across the lane, forcing Jrue Holiday to pick him up4. The Jazz attack the 1-3 (or 1-2) matchup very different in Hood’s case than they do with Hayward, but that’s a function of the two guys’ strengths. This is a smart way to get Hood a shot he can consistently bury over smalls.

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27.8%

Since people seem to be confused lately about the role Gobert plays in the defense as a whole, let’s get mathy about it.

Here’s Draymond Green himself:

Look, Green is a totally defensible pick for Defensive Player of the Year. Both he and Gobert are totally deserving of the award. But this logic is terrible. It implies that Gobert’s defense doesn’t allow the Jazz “stop the three.” Actually, when Gobert is on the court, Utah is able to limit its opponents to a 27.8% three-point attempt rate — the ratio of FGAs that are threes. That’s well below the league average 3PAr of 31.5%, and low enough to be a bottom five figure in the league. For the record, when Green’s on the court, 31.8% of opponent shots are threes.

The Jazz allow the fourth fewest made threes per game (Warriors are sixth), including 6.1 triples per every 36 Gobert on-court minutes, compared to the 7.1 that the Dubs allow with Draymond on the court. There are other variables, sure, but the Gobert-led defense is doing just fine at “stopping the three.”

Gobert’s back-line defense allows the Jazz to be aggressive at running shooters off the line. His elite ability to show and get back on screens permits Utah to guard the pick-and-roll without helping off spot shooters. And, when situations dictate, Gobert can even guard pretty well out in space himself.

Draymond is an impressive defender, and will probably be the DPOY. As far as I’m concerned, he and Gobert are, in some order, 1a and 1b for the award, so I won’t be offended if he gets the hardware this season. But let’s not pretend like Gobert is some outmoded, one-track defender who only influences what happens right at the rim. That kind of thinking is too reductive and frankly just false.

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After the 1996-97 reunion and the subsequent 75th birthday of Jerry Sloan, the Jazz coaching legend is once again top of mind for the fan base. The idea of a Sloan statue came up a lot this week, and it absolutely should happen.

But what’s the right Jerry to capture? Bronze John Stockton is appropriately dishing out on the Vivint SmartHome Arena’s plaza, while the Karl Malone sculpture is elevating for a [channel Hot Rod Hundley voice] “hamma dunk!” What’s the enduring image of Sloan that should be capture for the ages?

I’ve narrowed it down to my top six ideas.

What's your pick?

What’s your pick?

6. Jerry going berserk – Said at least partially in jest. This is how a lot of people remember the fiery Sloan, which is too bad because there’s a lot more to him than that.

5. Jerry in a huddle – I like this idea a lot, although it would be tough to build something really action-oriented that way.

4. Jerry presiding with a steely gaze – Again, not the most action oriented, but imagine him standing, staring across the plaza from where statue John and statue Karl are making plays.

3. Jerry giving instruction – I wish more people knew how much Sloan loved this part of his job. I got to interact with him a lot during the immediate post-Stockton-to-Malone days, and it was so clear during that phase how much he enjoyed teaching the game, pushing players, seeing how guys reacted to being tested. The book on Sloan is that he had little patience for young players, but I think he actually loved helping guys understand and appreciate the game.

2. Jerry calling a play – And of course, if Sloan is to be cast in bronze for the ages with his hand outstretched giving a signal it has to be the “C.” That’s the sign the Jazz would use to call for a single high pick-and-roll, a play they helped popularize to the point where virtually the entire league’s offense today is built around it.

1. Jerry clapping – This is perfect on two levels. One, it shows an encouraging side of Jerry that, again, is undersung. But clapping was also the Jazz’s team shorthand for “playing forward,” a mantra about moving on from the last play, and doing your job on the next one. “Play forward” was an oft-repeated phrase for the Jazz, and Jerry would often clap to remind guys to move on from their last mistake or miss and get back mentally to focusing on what they needed to do next.

Especially as Jerry deals with his own set of trials now, I can’t think of a more fitting way to honor the side of the legendary coach that was inspirational, forgiving, and demanded effort over perfection. Few people would even know that a clapping Sloan meant that, but to those who did, the enduring visage of the franchise’s top coach would be one reminding all of us to keep our heads up and keep fighting.

Happy birthday, Coach! Play forward.

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

3 Comments

  1. Pingback: Salt City Seven 2016-17 Archive | Salt City Hoops

  2. John Jenkins says:

    When you are off the court do to getting a technical you are not defending. When you kick people for what ever reason and get tossed you are mot defending. Rudy is always on the court. Do not know what the minutes played per game is but I bet Rudy wins out. The + – replacement is a real factor. Ruddy is DPOY.

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