The Jazz are riding yet another hot streak, so in this edition of the Seven, we dig into some of the reasons. There’s a lot of credit to go around, but we’ll start at a particular end of the depth chart.
The Jazz enter Thursday’s play on their fifth winning streak of the season to last four games or longer. What’s unique about this one is how they’re doing it: offensively.
During this streak, Utah’s offense has produced 122.1 points per 100 possessions, second only to the NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers over that stretch1. Usually a squad of defensive experts, the Jazz have suddenly unlocked something offensively, culminating with back-to-back road games with 120+ points. The last time that happened, Jazz PR tells us, was in the 1983-84 season — while John Stockton was still playing at Gonzaga and before any Jazzmen other than Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson were born.
So what has led to this historic — and out of character — outburst?
There are a lot of things to point to. The Jazz having a mostly healthy roster means they can go deeper without seeing a huge dip in quality and production. Derrick Favors is getting some of his bounce back. Joe Johnson has been on a tear. And of course Gordon Hayward has played worthy of his All-Star status, averaging 26.8 points on 60-42-83 shooting during this win streak. But the real reason Utah looks completely different: Utah suddenly has two point guards playing really good basketball.
George Hill’s game log is simultaneously tantalizing and depressing: a starry seven-game start, then eight games missed, then four more mostly good games, then 13 games missed… well, you get the picture. January had more up-and-down for the Indiana native as the injuries lingered into the new calendar year and then he visibly worked to get his rhythm and shooting back. February started with his second-lowest point total of the season, but the Jazz won anyway.
Since then, though, Hill has come on. He has averaged 22 points on 46% three-point shooting in that span. He has looked every bit the role of one of Utah’s best players.
But even more encouraging is the recent play of his backup, a guy who had lost the role until an untimely injury forced a rotation shuffle. At the time of our last Salt City Seven, Dante Exum was coming off one of the most uncomfortable games he’s ever played. He saw stints of 1:38, 1:48, 3:13 and a final garbage-time run of 1:10. His confidence was obviously at a low point, and fans started talking as though he was unplayable.
Three games later, Exum is back to being an exciting prospect with tons of promise.
The 21-year-old has shot 54% from the field in the last three while notching just under 10 points and three assists in about 20 minutes of nightly action. More than anything, though, it’s the renewed aggression that has people hurrying to rewrite the scouting report.
Exum’s paint-or-bust mentality against the Hornets inspired a tweetstorm by Nylon Calculus writer Nicholas Sciria, and it turns out that Exum was just getting started. He continued his good play on the road at Atlanta, and his performance in New Orleans was probably his best game all year. The Jazz won by 16 in Exum’s minutes, partially because he was attacking, defending and dishing. He had five assists, but I thought two or three of his best passes didn’t end in buckets. His vision and creativity were on full display.
He still struggles on three-point shots, and his finishes can be a bit of an adventure. But Exum looking again like a top-five prospect is probably the best development the Jazz could hope for, especially since Hill’s future with the club beyond June still isn’t a sure thing.
Losing Hill would be devastating regardless of where Exum is on his developmental track. But if the youngster is able to close the season with a mostly-positive 30 game stretch, it could be a good runway for him to get something out of his first full offseason as a pro. And even if Hill stays, unlocking Exum’s potential is one way the club could bolster its long-term success by developing another star internally.
“It’s always good to go back down (to Atlanta) to be with your family and friends… It comes at a good time for me.”
– Derrick Favors, to the Deseret News’ Jody Genessy
Whether it was the trip back to the 404 that did or something else, Favors has looked as good over the last two games as he did all season.
He celebrated his homecoming with a return to the starting lineup and a 20-and-10 outing (in just 26 minutes). His scoring numbers in the next game were more modest, but he was still solid: 12 points (on seven shots) and a huge role in holding Anthony Davis to his third-lowest scoring output of the season. More importantly, he has looked more springy, hitting some of those trademark Favors moves: the FT-line jumper and little jump hooks across the lane.
Sometimes the Jazz make it easier for me to find cool plays to highlight by opening a game with something clever. This was literally their first offensive possession against Atlanta.
This play actually starts as horns, but quickly turns into something else, which quickly turns into something else again. After aligning in horns, Favors then goes to the outside of Gobert to set up staggered screens for Hayward. It’s important that he goes over because it coaxes his man into making the conscious decision to stay back in “contain” mode2. Because of that, he’s not really in position to help when the real action starts: a dribble hand-off for Hayward coming off staggered screens.
Hayward gets it and barrels into open space. Hill is there in the middle faking another screen, but that’s when Gobert and Favors flip directions to set what’s called a double flare screen for Hill, essentially walling off his defender. By then, there’s nothing Dennis Schröder can do.
It was part of a 22.0-ppg week for Hill, and it’s another example of a Quin Snyder offense that layers action upon action upon action to catch defenders off-kilter.
Jazz 105, Hornets 98: Gordon Hayward
Pretty easy one. The 33 points make for a nice starting point, but really it was the fact that he did most of the damage as Utah pulled away late that cemented his case. In the game’s final 12 minutes, Hayward scored 11 points on five shots, snagged four of his eight rebounds, and doled the assist to Joe Johnson for the game-sealing three. All while his team was turning a 6-point deficit at the quarter break into a seven-point win.
Jazz 120, Hawks 95: Derrick Favors
This was one of those nights where the MVP of the game and the “story of the game” guy were different. Hayward was just superb, controlling the game from the get-go. Normally, a 30-7-5 game is unquestionably game ball material, and in most contexts it would be. But after all the hand-wringing about Favors’ role, how can you ignore this arc: hometown game, returns to the starting lineup, scores 20 in just 26 minutes on near-perfect (10-of-12) shooting, double-digit rebounds, helps frustrate former ‘mate Paul Millsap into a 4-for-14 night, +41 Net Rating and plays amazing rim defense (14%). His second half was great offensively — he made six straight shots the third and early fourth.
Jazz 127, Pelicans 94: Joe Johnson
Last week, Quin Snyder told the media, “We don’t talk enough about Joe.” He’s right, but luckily the vet gave us ample excuse to recognize him with a scoring outburst in the Big Easy. He made his first four three-point shots on his way to 6-of-8, part of an overall 10-for-14 effort with 27 points and the best bench plus-minus. Gobert and Favors were both important for how they forced Anthony Davis into one of worst games of the season. But Johnson gets the headline on this one, and joins the game ball club.
The Jazz’s Net Rating is now the third best in the league. That’s a big deal because Net Rating is actually fairly predictive. They’re also fifth in the league (fourth in the West) in SRS, a schedule-adjusted scoring margin stat, and the fourth best (third in the West) in CARM-ELO, FiveThirtyEight’s pet stat.
Thursday at Mavs: When we started this SC7 tradition, we picked Thursday because the season typically starts and ends midweek, but also because the Jazz have historically played fewer games on Thursdays. This year, though, they’re getting a lot of Thursday run. In fact, this week, the weekly recap drops right in the middle of a back-to-back. Utah can finish this mini-trip at 3-0 if they get their second win of the season in Dallas. But the Mavs have been playing much bette, winning six of seven before dropping two straight division games.Their last two home losses were a one-point loss to Portland and the overtime loss to the Jazz last month.
Saturday vs. Celtics: Then it’s three straight home games to take the Jazz to the All-Star break, starting with this visit from the league’s best fourth-quarter scorer. Isaiah Thomas has his squad 14 games over .500, but they visit Utah as part of a stretch where they play 12 of 15 on the road.
Monday vs. Clippers: This game is big. It’s just the second of four meetings between the teams this year, meaning this one and the two that remain will go a long way to determining who opens the first round at home. Utah and LA are the most likely candidates for a fourth seed, unless the Clips continue their tailspan sans Chris Paul. They’re 3-7 since the All-Star guard injured his hand on January 16, and they visit Utah as the capper to a 5-game road swing (and their 10th roadie in 11 games).
Wednesday vs. Blazers: Weirdly enough, this is also just the second meeting with the division-rival Blazers, and the first since the season opener. Back then, the basketball world thought that this was going to be the interesting rivalry this year, but Portland has had a disappointing season, to say the least. The big problem is that they can’t guard anybody — they have the 4th-worst defense in the NBA, which should particularly suit the Jazz’s recent offensive hot streak.
The two straight blowout wins reminded me of a conversation SCH founder (and now Jazz employee) Spencer Hall and I used to have on press row: in big wins, we’d get a kick out of looking at when the Jazz scored the winning bucket. In other words, at what point did they reach a point total that would be enough to beat their opponents’ final score?
34 winning scoresThe Pelicans scored 94 points on Wednesday. With 11:02 remaining, Favors’ free-throw trip gave the Jazz 95. So technically, the Jazz could have not scored for the game’s final 662 seconds and still won3.
So just for kicks, here’s every Jazz win this season, along with the scoring play where the Jazz “won” the game. A few facts: