Salt City Seven: The Stretch Run Begins, Jazz Hanging With the Best, Transition Scoring & More

February 18th, 2019 | by Dan Clayton

Gobert and the Jazz can hang with anybody — now it’s time to win. (Melissa Majchrzak via espn.com)

The Salt City Seven drops every Monday throughout the regular season, with seven regular features meant to relive the week in Jazzland from various angles. Check in every Monday for the quotes, stats, plays and performances that tell the stories from the last 168 hours in the world of the Jazz.

An important quote from Jazz players or personnel during the week.

“We can play with the best teams. I think we know that. Now it’s on us to take the next step: be able to get connected, be able to play defense for four quarters, not just three.”

-Jazz star Rudy Gobert on where the Jazz stand at the All-Star break

This line came from Eric Walden’s great check-in on the state of the Jazz, which also included insight from coach Quin Snyder, reserve forward Jae Crowder and others. The final verdict, at least of that article: the Jazz are still working on finding the best version of themselves as a team.

“I don’t think we were as good a team (early in the season) as we are now,” Snyder told Walden. “I think our guys know it’s possible to improve throughout the season.”

The Snyder-led Jazz know all about coming on late. In each of Snyder’s five seasons at the helm, the club has posted a better record in the second half of the season than they did through the first 41 games. That’s true again this year: Utah reached the midway point on a 40-win pace, and have since won 12 of 16, the winning percentage of a 62-win team. Of course, a crazy schedule imbalance explains that leap; the Jazz were never as mediocre as a 40-win team, nor are they as good now as a 62-win team. But this group, historically and in its current version, understands how to get better as a season goes along.

They’ll need to continue that upward arc. Because while Gobert’s right — the Jazz can “play with” anybody — they’ll need to more consistently seal the deal if they’re going to climb the standings like they did a year ago.

This past week saw Utah drop the season series to the reigning champion Warriors. Yet in both losses, the Jazz actually held late leads. Golden State needed the last fraction of a second to secure the victory in Salt Lake last October, and this week’s confrontation in Oakland saw the Jazz up seven in the final frame before the offense dried up. They had five straight empty possessions, and after Donovan Mitchell finally ended a 3-plus minute drought, Warriors star Steph Curry dropped the hammer with a personal 8-0 run to pull away.

Still, it proves Gobert’s point in a way that it took a signature Curry explosion for the Dubs to put Utah away at home. Utah’s late-game execution can be much better than the sloppy possessions that plagued them to the tune of 43.9% true shooting in that fourth quarter — meaning with a little bit more focus, it’s not hard to imagine a path to victory for Utah. Snyder’s squad will finish the year 1-2 against Golden State, but any of those games could have flipped the other way. (That’s also true of the Jazz’s narrow win before Christmas, a game with a 1-possession difference in the final minute, when the Warriors had three chances to tie.)

That’s why the bottom line here — and the essence of Gobert’s quote above — is that the Jazz don’t have any reason to fear even the mighty Warriors. They have faced them three teams and been roughly on their level, the difference in all three outings being decided by execution and focus on a handful of crucial late plays.

Up and down the Western landscape, there is nobody the Jazz need to fear. They’re 14-13 against teams with at least a semi-realistic shot at being Western playoff teams, 9-10 against the current top eight. Essentially, the Jazz know they are capable of beating anybody in that crew when they’re playing well, and fully capable of losing when they’re not.

Second-place Denver has a much-improved team, but their main guys are light on playoff experience, and so far Utah is 1-1 against the Nuggets. The Jazz have also split against the Blazers and Rockets, winning when their defensive execution was good enough to hold those teams’ star guards in check, losing when it wasn’t. They own or lead the season series vs. San Antonio (2-1, clinched) and the Clippers (1-0, tw0 games to play).

The only Western Conference team against which the Jazz have come up empty is Oklahoma City (0-2). Utah was at a rest disadvantage in both of those games, though, and they know after last year’s 4-2 playoff series win that, while past success doesn’t guarantee anything, they can hang with the Thunder.

So Gobert’s right: they can play with anybody. To climb the conference ladder and improve their playoff position, just hanging in there won’t be enough. Starting with late February showdowns in OKC and Denver, Utah can help its case by finding some wins.

 

Stats that tell the story of the week or highlight a timely topic.

5

From this point forward, the Jazz play just five games left against teams that currently have a better record than their own 32-25, and only eight more against teams that are currently at .500 or better. Four of those winning opponents (and three who have a better winning percentage) come between now and March 2 (when they face the league-leading Bucks), meaning that the final month and eight days of the season will be pretty light in terms of opponent quality.

7

Two players the Warriors had circled on their game plan: Gobert and Joe Ingles. The Warriors’ defensive scheme seemed to ensure that those two couldn’t get going, as they combined for just seven shot attempts all game, making six. Gobert used just 12.9% of all Jazz possessions he was a part of, and Ingles used only 5.8%. So what were the Warriors willing to give up? Basically they chose to dare Donovan Mitchell to beat them off the bounce, usually throwing extra bodies his way after he turned the corner on pick-and-rolls. Mitchell finished the night 4-for-12 on pull-up jumpers, and 3-for-13 with more turnovers (2) than assists (1) on his drives. 

109.2

Here’s a somewhat troubling trend to keep an eye on: Utah’s defense in the second half of games is, um, not good. The Jazz hold opponents to 101.7 points per 100 possessions before intermission, the best first-half defensive mark in the league. But their second-half defense is ranked at just 15th. 

 

Breaking down the Xs and Os behind a Jazz score from the week.

Drag Screens

In Snyder’s first four years running the team, the Jazz have ranked near or at the bottom of the league in pace: 30th, 30th, 30th and then finally 25th last season. This season, they’re finally breaking out of the “glacial” category and are up to 15th in possessions per game.

They are making a concerted effort to strike opportunistically when they can create an advantage early in the shot clock. One of the tools they’re using to do that is the drag screen. We saw the drag screen in action quite a bit in this week’s lone contest, so it’s a good week to highlight that in this space.

A drag screen is a semi-transition action where a big running down the middle of the floor runs right into a pick for a ball handler who’s coming down either the right or left side. This allows the guard to get into the middle of the floor pretty early in the possession, and at a point when the defense might still be getting established. Watch the Jazz pick on DeMarcus Cousins for their first bucket of the night.

This doesn’t even look like a drag screen, because Gobert is ahead of Ricky Rubio and not trailing, as is often the case for this action. But it has the same impact. Cousins is still jogging back, and he actually has his back to the play at the moment Gobert sets the screen. He does realize what’s happening and gets in position to contest, but by that point, Rubio has already committed both defenders, so Gobert has a free rim roll.

This one looks more like a traditional drag screen, except that Mitchell actually denies the screen with a sweet crossover move.

GSW was wise to Gobert’s trailing pick, so Andre Iguodala tries to get a head start going over the top. So Mitchell just throws a little fake at him and gets him way behind the play.

But here was my favorite example, because this actually wasn’t set up as a drag screen at all, but Rubio saw an advantage he could exploit, so he turns it into one.

Notice that at first, Rubio is bringing the ball up the middle. But he sees Cousins playing way back off of Gobert and he knows he can do something with that. So he snakes over to the left side of the floor so that he can attack the middle where a passive Cousins just isn’t putting up enough resistance1. He needs one low dribble move to get by a reaching Klay Thompson, but Cousins never lifts his arms, gets into a defensive stance, or otherwise makes it look like he’s interested in stopping Rubio. The Spaniard wanted to attack that matchup, so he manufactured it by veering left to create an opportunity for the drag screen.

Keep an eye out for that action whenever the Jazz look to attack early by getting a ball handler to the middle of the floor against a defense that’s still getting organized.

 

After each Jazz win, Twitter helps us decide who was that game’s MVP or most memorable performer.

The 0-1 week means there are no new Spaldings to award this time around, but fret not. Instead of an empty Game Ball section, we’ll reset the ranking for you. At 32-25, here’s how things stand.

32 game balls… and counting.

 

Tracking the wild Western Conference postseason race and the Jazz’s place in it.

Post All-Star break is when I generally start to unveil my playoff picture graphics for the Western Conference race. The biggest question at this point: who should we include? As recently as a few weeks ago, it seemed like as many as 14 teams had a semi-realistic shot. Since then, the Mavs, Grizz and Pelicans have all but completely dropped from the race. The Wolves’ hopes are fading, too, and I’d leave the Kings off except that they still have a better record than the Lakers.

So ultimately I decided to make this graphic based on seeds 2 through 102 But if we have to get more inclusive/exclusive based on how the next seven weeks go, we will.

A look at the WC 2-10 race with about a third of the season to go. (Click to enlarge)

For a while, I’ll be updating this every Monday. As the postseason draws nearer, I’ll start adding a Thursday update via Twitter. And in the last week or two, I probably won’t be able to resist doing multiple updates per week.

 

A quick look at the Jazz’s next seven nights of action.

The Jazz will wrap up their vacations and then get back to work with the first of their five remaining back-to-backs. 

Friday: Utah at Oklahoma City, 7:30 p.m. MT **ESPN Game**

  • State of the Thunder: OKC is 11-2 in its last 13 and looking elite. Paul George is a top-3 MVP candidate, averaging 35-8-5 over the past month while shooting 46 percent from three.
  • Jazz-Thunder: Utah had to play the first two in this series on the second night of back-to-backs against a rested Thunder team. This time both teams will be coming off the All-Star break, but winning in Bricktown is never easy. Especially with PG-13 playing like he is.
  • Key for the Jazz: Don’t let Russell Westbrook get to the rim and don’t let George get to the free-throw line. Both are far easier said than done.

Saturday: Dallas at Utah, 8:00 p.m. MT

  • State of the Mavericks: Dallas has lost nine of 15, and on top of that they just traded half their rotation away in a pair of deals a week apart. The outgoing Harrison Barnes, DeAndre Jordan, Wesley Matthews and Dennis Smith Jr. took a combined 54.7 points per game with them when they left. Dallas will also be playing on Friday night and traveling to Utah for a back-to-back.
  • Jazz-Mavs: This will conclude the season series after the Jazz won the first two — and then suffered the worst defeat since the team relocated to Utah. Utah likely hasn’t forgotten that 118-68 smackdown. All three games were played in a 2.5-week span in the early part of the season.
  • Key for the Jazz: More than ever, this is Luka Doncic’s team now. With JJ Barea (10.9 ppg) out for the year and four other double-digit scorers gone, it’s the Luka show more than ever. The Jazz will have to account for the scoring of Tim Hardaway Jr., but basically if they can hold Doncic in check, it’s not clear where the points will come from for Dallas.

Because after all, we’re here to have fun.

It’s not quite the right tenor for a section that is purportedly about “fun,” but I couldn’t let the week go by without mentioning Joe and Renae Ingles’ heartfelt post about their son’s diagnosis and what it means for their young family. It’s a touching reminder that we are all more than one thing. It’s easy to see Joe as this 2-D figure on our television screens that knocks down 3-pointers, talks smack and Insta-flames his teammates. But if we ever need a reminder that he’s a real person with a wife, and kids, and challenges, and worries, and hopes…. Like all of us, Ingles is more complex than the hilariously lovable sharpshooter who’s always needling someone. 

But anyway, back to the fun stuff…

The other subplot we couldn’t NOT mention this week was the Jazz’s — and particularly Mitchell’s — involvement in All-Star weekend. First, he went out and dropped an easy 20 (with nine assists and five steals) in the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night. But a greater testament to the growing Mitchell zeitgeist was his time at the broadcast table on Saturday night. The TNT crew doesn’t generally invite active players into its coverage. Small market or not, the bright lights find their way to Mitchell, who remains one of the league’s most gregarious young stars.


Here we go down the stretch run! Seven more juicy bits of Jazz next Monday.

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball from up close for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. The born-and-raised Utahn now lives in New York City.
Dan Clayton

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