Preseason or no, shorthanded opponent or no, the Jazz needed a game like Thursday night’s blowout over Denver to cap an inconsistent preseason.
Heading into the game, there was a palpable sense of minor frustration from the Jazz regarding an uneven preseason and all the speculation that came with it. Quin Snyder’s Tuesday mic drop aside, it just felt like to a man, players and coaches alike were ready to put aside all the talk and get down to business. Snyder said at shootaround that the Jazz would be treating Thursday’s preseason finale like a regular season game.
He wasn’t kidding. The Jazz were razor sharp out of the gate, running out to a 14-0 lead with their new starting unit and never looking back.
“We came out with a defensive mindset,” said Rodney Hood, one of the two new insertions into the starting lineup. “We weren’t worried about shots or anything.”
It set the tone for what was likely Utah’s most positive game this preseason, and the timing couldn’t have been better. Snyder was quick to note that while his group was up against a shorthanded opponent sitting several rotational players, this was still a step in the right direction.
“They didn’t play a lot of their guys. But nonetheless, I think at least just the way we approached it. I thought we looked more like the team that we want to be,” Snyder said.
Some of the team’s preseason issues certainly aren’t going anywhere, of course. Their shots were going down in bunches Thursday night, but spacing and optimal ball movement concerns will remain into the beginning of the regular season. The group also hasn’t quite returned to their peak form defensively, something Snyder noted in fairly blatant fashion.
“I don’t think we’re disciplined yet defensively — it’s driving me crazy,” said Snyder. “But it’s supposed to be like that.”
Every team in the league still has areas to tighten up, though, and it’s hard to shake the general feeling from both Snyder and his locker room that Thursday’s dominance helped clear a lingering stench out from their preseason. Guys seemed looser across the board, as if their equilibrium had been re-established. We spend so much time on more quantifiable analysis, but it’s entirely possible that simply feeling right could make a huge difference for such a young team.
A few other notes:
- Some of what Snyder was referring to as far as defensive discipline is something I’ve noted at various times this preseason — far from lacking in defensive energy on many occasions, the Jazz might actually be a bit too aggressive from time to time. Guys are so eager to rush to their help assignments that they’re sometimes doing so with what borders on reckless abandon, and often without thinking about the specifics of the rotation they’re creating. Helping is a good mindset, but there are times where it’s a negative, especially if multiple guys are moving themselves out of position. The Jazz are giving too much help down low more than anything — guys like Gobert and Derrick Favors don’t need multiple wings to crash down to help on post-ups they can very often snuff out themselves. All that does is create open shots for the opponent or induce damaging rotations, and all those limbs in such small spaces have begun creating a few too many touch fouls for the Jazz also. Snyder will enjoy the way his group is committed to having each others’ backs, but he’ll surely be working to tone down their over-exuberance before the season gets going.
- Trey Burke continued his excellent preseason with another strong game, this time off the bench as Snyder tried Raul Neto and Rodney Hood in place of Burke and Alec Burks. The change didn’t seem to affect Trey, who once again led the team with 17 points and seemed in control of his game on both ends. He somehow hit three different buzzer-beating shots — one apiece to close the first, second and third quarters. And for what had to be the fourth or fifth time this preseason, he earned unprompted praise from Snyder about his play. In a sentiment echoed by teammate Gordon Hayward, and one Trey himself has noted in the last few weeks, Burke thinks the biggest difference for him is the way he’s preparing:
“I just think preparing differently mentally,” Burke said. “Getting my extra shots in every night, before and after shootaround. Rest. Eating better. I think it’s just something that I noticed that I was going to have to change certain habits that I had in the past and I had to change.”
- Rudy Gobert had easily his best game of the preseason, finally appearing to shake off some of the cobwebs of a long summer of international play.
“You could tell in the locker room before the game — the way he was looking at me when we were giving the pregame discussion and the film, he invested in a win today from the moment he woke up,” said Snyder of Gobert’s breakout game.
He looked like his usual springy self, dominating Denver’s frontcourt on the glass and capitalizing with a couple refreshing alley-oop finishes when the Nuggets defended his pick-and-rolls incorrectly. He and Derrick Favors both feasted on a Denver front line that couldn’t handle their bulk Thursday night.
“We just wanted to be physical,” Rudy said postgame. “We felt like we got a little bit bullied against OKC, and we wanted to come out tonight and, whoever was in front of us, just be physical and make sure we get rebounds.”
- Snyder’s new starting unit was a surprise pregame announcement, with both Neto and Hood saying they found out earlier today at shootaround. Their emphasis defensively was obvious from the jump, holding Denver off the scoreboard for well over five minutes in the first quarter and allowing their offense to flow around that. Burke’s strong play, along with continued success from Neto with his set jumper when defenses sag away from him, will make Snyder’s ability to toggle between the two more efficient, both within the starting lineup and elsewhere. The bigger question would appear to be whether Hood remains a part of the first group — Burks had a bit of an off night, but it was tough to tell whether that was a result of his fit off the bench or just a random blip following a strong series of games.
- While Snyder was reluctant to label their competition one for “fourth wing” minutes given the varied style the Jazz play, the back-and-forth between Joe Ingles and Elijah Millsap on the perimeter beyond Utah’s top three continued to fluctuate Thursday night. After Ingles dominated those minutes Tuesday against the Thunder, the pendulum swung back to Millsap Thursday night. Snyder explained postgame that this was a decision he made Tuesday, and one he talked to both guys about — it’s easier, he said, for guys to prepare knowing they’re set for real rotation minutes rather than unsure if they might just see limited usage. He was quick to note that this won’t always be the case; there will be nights when Utah needs both for longer stretches1, and certainly some periods where both play together, especially when the Jazz go to smaller lineups. And of course, the two will continue to be used in situations optimal to their specific skill sets.
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