Salt City Seven: Utah’s Uniquely Elite D, Playoff Picture, Dunks, Leads & More

April 1st, 2019 | by Dan Clayton

The Jazz are shutting down the paint and the perimeter. (Melissa Majchrzak via espn.com)

The Salt City Seven drops every week 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 improved. When you work at something and it’s important to you, you’re going to figure out ways to be successful at it. It’s who we are.”

-Jazz coach Quin Snyder, on how his team has improved on the defensive end

Team defense is usually about choices. NBA players are too talented, and the offenses built around them too intricate, to take everything away. So defenses pick and choose where to apply the most pressure. But like squeezing one part of a balloon animal, when you squeeze one part of the balloon, the air just finds its way to another part of the balloon.

Take the league’s top defense, for example. The Bucks devote an inordinate amount of defensive focus to protecting the paint, and for good reason. Milwaukee’s opponents take the smallest percentage of their non-garbage time shots at the rim, and convert the smallest percentage of them, per Cleaning the Glass. But that comes with a trade-off: the Bucks also allow their opponents to take 35.8% of their shots at the 3-point line, the highest figure in the league. Their system works for them because of their long, athletic personnel, but their defensive identity still reflects that choice.

Almost as a counterpoint, you have another Eastern Conference power, the Philadelphia 76ers. Philly defense allows opponents to take the fourth fewest threes (as a percentage of their offense in meaningful minutes), but all of that running out to shooters creates fissures that have allowed the ninth most rim attempts. 

Both Philly and Milwaukee are elite in terms of overall shot defense (by opponent eFG%), and yet they exist opposite each other on the spectrum of defensive choices, a perfect allegory for how hard it is to deny an NBA offense both the paint and the three.

Enter the Utah Jazz.

The Jazz don’t believe in such choices. When Snyder says that the team has improved at defense, what he means is that the Jazz have found the discipline to smartly challenge shooters and to protect the paint without collapsing and over-helping. This makes Utah a rare breed, a defense capable of protecting the two most fertile areas for NBA offenses. Utah is the only team in the top five for limiting rim attempts AND 3-pointers. 

No contenders are even close to being elite at protecting both areas. Golden State is 2nd at limiting rim attempts, but 19th at limiting threes. Toronto is 11th and 10th, respectively. None of Houston (15th/8th), Boston (8th/28th), Denver (24th/23rd) or Portland (19th/2nd) have the defensive versatility to shut down both zones at an elite level, and we already covered Milwaukee (1st/30th) and Philadelphia (22nd/4th)1.

Utah is just special defensively, the second-best overall defense in the league this season, and the best in March. Their system is obviously designed around the unique talent of paint anchor Rudy Gobert, but it’s deeper than that. They have committed defenders at every rotation spot, and that discipline to the team goals on each possessions makes the group better collectively than the sum of its parts.

Yes, Gobert’s presence back behind allows guards to pressure the outside differently than a team that doesn’t employ the DPOY and his 9-foot-7 standing reach. But that doesn’t mean that the perimeter defenders are playing recklessly. They play with a distinct set of overarching principles in mind, augmented by smart game plans for specific opponents. No team allows fewer wide-open 3-point shots than Utah and the same is true if you add together the open and wide-open threes. The Jazz guards and wings aren’t gambling; they know what they want to do defensively, and by and large, they do it.

Sure, they get tripped up, as they did on Friday night when they allowed 117.5 points per possession to the lottery-bound Wizards. But that was the only game in the last 11 in which Utah’s defensive performance was below average, and in six games over that span, their DRtg was in the top 10 percent of all games played this NBA season.

In other words, the defense is clicking in again. 

 

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

0:43

That’s the total amount of time that Utah has trailed during the second halves of games during their current 4-game winning streak. In fact, of the 192 total minutes in those four games, Utah trailed for exactly 11 of them: 24 seconds against Chicago, 5:04 against Phoenix, and 5:32 against Washington. They never trailed against the Lakers.

280

Gobert currently holds a 280-272 edge on Giannis Antetokounmpo as this season’s dunk leader, but his 280 also makes him the all-time leader for dunks in a season (since the NBA started counting them, anyway). Gobert’s response to setting the record was great, as he reflexively gave the nod to his teammates: “It’s their record, too.” Fair enough, since 73% of his dunks this season have been assisted. “All I have to do is put it in the basket.” For the record, that’s a gross oversimplification, but his desire to share the praise is laudable nonetheless.

38%

Barring a late surge, neither Joe Ingles nor Kyle Korver will finish the year above the 40% mark for 3-point shots (with the Jazz, in Korver’s case). Both are sitting on 38% right now, and assuming both guys take five per game over the Jazz’s final six, Ingles would need a nearly impossible 21-for-30 finish to reach 40%. Korver would only need a 17-for-30 close, which feels more attainable except that he’s shooting just 29% over the last five games. He “only” needs a 14-for-30 close to lock in a true 40% for the season, including his 16 games with Cleveland. 

+13.8

Jae Crowder had a pretty brutal outing on both sides of the ball in Atlanta, Utah’s lone loss of their last 10. But since then, the veteran forward has turned it around and then some. He owns a team-best +13.8 net rating during the streak, and he has hit 46.8% of his threes over that span. Donovan Mitchell and Raul Neto have also both been hot during the streak, shooting 50% from outside over these four games.

 

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

The downside of the Jazz spending the week blowing out lottery teams is that they never really had much of a need to dig deep into the playbook. Most of their scoring since the last SC7 “Playbook” section came just in the regular flow of the offense. However, they did find some opportunities to attack bad defenders by adding a single pass to some of their most basic actions. 

For example, watch how much difficulty DeAndre Ayton and Richaun Holmes have guarding the pick-and-roll when the Jazz add one simple pass to the action.

These are both very simple plays: just a high pick-and-roll to the middle. But because the Phoenix bigs are playing way back in both cases, the Jazz use a simple pass across the top to get them out of Derrick Favors’ roll path. Crowder and Mitchell attack the seam on the 45-degree angle, and force the “containing” big to do something other than contain. So instead of a pick-and-roll, these plays are pick-pass-and-roll plays, and Utah is using them a lot. It allows Favors (and Gobert) to roll into a conflicted help defender instead of rolling into a wall.

Here’s another example of adding a single pass to one of Utah’s pet plays. We’ll call this one “Spain plus one.”

The Spain P&R is what you see at the beginning of the play here: a high P&R for Ricky Rubio, but with a shooter like Korver (in this case) or Ingles simultaneously setting a backscreen on the big. The shooter pops, the screener rolls, and the guard drives, and because of all of those options, teams usually get something out of Spain P&R.

A clever way of stopping Spain has crept across the league, and rookie Elie Okobo tries it here. The best way to stop this play is for the guard in back to pick up the ball and let the ball handler’s man slide over to pick up the shooter while the big works through the screen to stay with his man. The Jazz guard Spain this way. Okobo recognizes the play and correctly steps over to pick Rubio up, but what the Jazz are banking on is that Jimmer Fredette, in just his second game back in the NBA, won’t have picked this tactic up yet and won’t know he’s suppose to switch out to Korver.

They were right: he hasn’t. In fact, you can see Korver recognize Jimmer’s confusion and cut to the wing early. As soon as he realizes that Fredette plans to follow Rubio, he doesn’t even bother setting the backscreen but instead darts to an open spot on the wing. Jimmer gets so lost that eventually he is stuck on the wrong side of Ekpe Udoh’s roll. There’s no way he’s going to get back to Korver in time, so Georges Niang’s guy slides over to help, and that’s where the simple pass-off leads to a wide open three.

(Tangentially, this might be part of why the Jazz appeared confused at the adoration Fredette got from the Utah fan base. Jimmer’s college years will always be a special memory to his fans in the Beehive, and I’m sure on a level, the players understood that. But the Jazz had just spent the evening attacking the defensively unaware guard, so it must have been a little odd for them to hear such boisterous cheers directed at a player they had targeted and, if we’re honest, kind of embarrassed. The Jazz were +25 in the 14 minutes Jimmer played, largely because of plays like this where they went right at him.)

The week was full of plays like these ones: the simplest of actions deployed with an extra pass to force bad defenders into making the wrong decision.

 

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

Jazz 125, Suns 92: Rudy Gobert

Gobert scored a season-high 27 (on just 11 shots), added his 59th double-double of the season (10 boards), and while he was at it used this game to set the all-time record2 for dunks in a season. Not bad, right? Just as importantly, the Suns wanted nothing to do with Gobert when he was in the defensive paint. The visitors shot just 29 percent at the rim with Stifle around, and he just got whatever he wanted all game on offense. Ricky Rubio started the game with energy when others seemed to be lacking and finished with 18 points, while Favors had another great game with 18-8-5.

Jazz 115, Lakers 100: Joe Ingles

The crowd’s chant of “We want Joe!” is probably a good hint that Ingles finished with the narrative edge on Game Ball. He was also really important from a basketball perspective, and the reasons overlapped. The night was set aside to advance Autism-related causes, a chance for the Ingles family to share their journey with the Jazz community to raise awareness. So Joe, with his two-year-old son Jacob’s name etched into his sneakers, had delivered a huge and personal assist before the clock started at the arena. Then he went and collected 14 more assists during game play, a Jazz season high. Vivint had pledged $5,000 to the cause for each of Ingles’ first five assists, and he fulfilled that quota in the game’s first 10 minutes. He narrowly missed what would have been the first regular season Jazz triple-double in 11 years — he had 11 points and nine rebounds to go with those 14 dimes — which is why the fans wanted him back in the game late. Gobert (22 & 11, three blocks) and Favors (20 points, 9-for-13) dominated the paint again, but this game had Ingles stamp on it, both inside the 94-by-50 rectangle and out.

Jazz 128, Wizards 124: Donovan Mitchell

Jae Crowder was sneaky great on defense while also hitting shots, and Joe Ingles was a real candidate. Ingles had his second straight double-digit assist night (10) to go with 18 points and a lot of fun chatter, including after he drew a key offensive foul late in the game. But 35-5-5 should make this pretty easy. And even though Mitchell did have some struggles early in the fourth quarter, he bounced back to finish off the Wiz, and still managed to get his 35 points on just 23 shots. Gobert (13 & 17) sealed the deal with a late block and Rubio (17 points) was aggressive throughout.

 

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

Six games left and the playoff race is taking shape.

The field is set: eight teams are in, with only positioning still up for grabs.

Houston’s division title will make it hard for the Jazz to move up past No. 4, even if the Rockets slip. At this point, Utah’s best chance at homecourt advantage in the first round is by overtaking Portland, who would need to lose at least two more. Their Friday game at Denver is their only projected loss, but they have three other games — at Minnesota, at the Lakers and home against Denver — that are basically toss-ups, per FiveThirtyEight.com.

On the other side, since Utah owns the tiebreaker over the Clippers, they’d have to lose twice before they were at risk of slipping past fifth.

So more likely than not, the Jazz will find themselves in the 4-vs.-5 matchup for the third straight year. Still to be determined: who they’ll face and where they’ll start.

 

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

The Jazz play six of their next eight at home, starting with three lottery teams visiting this week. 

Monday: Hornets at Utah, 7:00 p.m. MT 

  • State of the Hornets: Charlotte had four impressive wins in a row before starting their 4-game Western swing. But they’re 0-2 on this trip after a 47-point drubbing by the Warriors, and now head to Utah on a back-to-back as they cling to faint playoff hopes.
  • Jazz-Hornets: Mitchell’s 30 and a 20-and-17 night from Gobert helped Utah edge the Hornets back in November, 118-111.
  • Key for the Jazz: Pick-and-roll defense. Kemba Walker uses more possessions as the P&R ball handler than anybody else in the league, and he and Damian Lillard are the most efficient by far of the volume guys in that category.

Wednesday: Utah at Phoenix, 8:00 p.m. MT

  • State of the Suns: Igor Kokoskov’s new team had a fun little 7-4 stretch where they got to play spoiler, but now they’ve lost six straight.
  • Jazz-Suns: Utah has won all three matchups so far, by margins of 28, 17 and 33. Although last week’s contest injected some drama into Wednesday’s series finale, as the Jazz seemed to take exception with Devin Booker’s attempt to make history at their expense. 
  • Key for the Jazz: Non-Booker Suns scored just 33 on 12-of-42 shooting last week, which tells you that Utah’s game plan broadly worked. That said, they’ll also want to make sure he doesn’t drop another 59.

Friday: Sacramento at Utah, 7:00 p.m. MT

  • State of the Kings: Sacramento had lost seven of 11, including a loss in Houston on Saturday that ended their playoff hopes. But that doesn’t mean they’re not still playing hard; in fact, in their next time out after elimination, they beat the Spurs in San Antonio. 
  • Jazz-Kings: The Jazz are 2-1 against the Kings so far, having won both the road games and lost the previous home matchup during their November malaise. 
  • Key for the Jazz: Control the game. Sacramento is a high-paced team (second in the league) that commits and forces a lot of turnovers. 

Sunday: Utah at L.A. Lakers, 7:30 p.m. MT

  • State of the Lakers: LeBron James has been shut down for the rest of the season, which tells you what you need to know about the state of the Lakers. They have won four of five, though — the lone loss coming to the Jazz. 
  • Jazz-Lakers: Utah lost during a November visit to Staples, but has since beat the Lakers twice at home, including last week’s wire-to-wire win. Overall, Utah has won 13 of 15 against L.A.
  • Key for the Jazz: The Lakers were actually just 28-27 with LeBron this season — but so far they’re 7-15 without him. And since a handful of other rotation players may also miss that game, it’s absolutely a must-win for Utah.

 

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

Nothing deserves to be memorialized in this space more than the biggest non-basketball story of the week intersecting with the actual game — even in a week when Mitchell got his own pedestrian bridge named after him.

Ingles and his family made what must have been a very complex and challenging decision to share their journey with Jazz fans, but then took it a step further by actually going front-foot with it to create some awareness and help destigmatize autism spectrum disorder. Then he actually took his crusade onto the court, literally using basketball (via an assist challenge from the Jazz’s arena sponsor, Vivint) to raise money for autism-related causes. Then, awash in the glow of a near-triple double on a night his performance was dedicated to his sweet son Jacob, Ingles got the water bottle treatment and just sat there and absorbed it like a champ while sporting his trademark smirk.


That will do it this week, the penultimate Salt City Seven of the season. Join us next Monday as we tee up the final regular season games of 2018-19.

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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