The Jazz struggled on both ends in their home opening loss to Portland Wednesday night. They shot a miserable 5-24 from three-point range (20.8 percent), were under 65 percent from the line and well under 40 percent from the field. To a man, though, Utah’s group put a disappointing loss on their defensive effort.
“We came out and didn’t execute defensively,” said coach Quin Snyder. “We let some guys get what they wanted, and we got hurt for it. You can’t do that. You have to execute.”
The margin for error against a backcourt tandem of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum that’s been on fire to start the season was small, and the Jazz were well below an acceptable threshold. The fault on this night actually appeared to lie just as much with Utah’s bigs as their guards — with sharpshooters like Lillard and McCollum most often handling the ball, it took until well past halftime for the Jazz’s frontcourt to adjust their coverage in pick-and-roll sets and start showing bodies to Portlands guards as they rounded picks. Even then, the effort wasn’t there.
“At times, the guy guarding the ball was playing one against two, because we weren’t doing the things that we need to do collectively,” Snyder said.
To be fair, some of the performances put forth by the Blazers’ backcourt were no one’s fault but those guys themselves. Both Lillard and McCollum made several insane shots throughout the evening, including several at particularly timely moments as the Jazz looked to close the gap and make a comeback. The most optimal defense possible wasn’t stopping those guys every time down the floor on this night.
The problem is, guys like that are waiting around every corner in the NBA. Snyder knows it too, and prefers to focus on some of the more controllable elements.
“There’s a couple ways to look at it,” he said. “You can look at it and say, ‘We played two really, really good guards that are hot, and they made some really really good plays and tough shots.’ But to look at it that way gets you a loss, and you can’t do much about it. I think the way that we need to look at it is that we didn’t do enough to try to affect that. You’re going to play against great players almost every night in the NBA – every team has great players. That’s why you game plan, that’s why you focus, that’s why you try to execute.”
No matter what happened around the margins — uneven officiating, inconsistent shooting1 or some simple bad luck — it all comes back to execution for this team, and it wasn’t there. Maybe a three-day layoff between games caught them a bit lethargic. Maybe Derrick Favors didn’t have his usual 110 percent to give while nursing flu-like symptoms as a game-time decision. At the end of the day, though, however valid these issues are (and several certainly are), these are excuses Snyder and his players won’t make. Quin knows they won’t blow things out of proportion after one bad game, either.
“I want them to react,” he said. “For me to go in and throw stuff, and scream and yell — that might have a little bit of an impact, but over the course of a season that’s not going to get us where we want to go. Our guys need to take ownership, and I’m right there with them. We’ve gotta own how we played and play better, no question.
“We’re not a mature enough, good enough team yet.”
111.2 — Points scored per-100-possessions for the Blazers Wednesday night, far and away the highest figure the Jazz have allowed on this young season. For a team whose central identity is their defense and who can and will struggle at times offensively, nights where they allow this sort of number and win will be incredibly rare.
124.6 — Rudy Gobert’s final tally for this same per-100 defensive figure, a number that feels nearly impossible while he’s on the floor. Rudy in particular struggled to get out far enough to contain Portland’s guards in pick-and-roll, something he admitted after the game.
31.3 — Percent of the Jazz’s three-point attempts that have gone in so far this season.
Transition play remains a huge issue: Unfortunately, a note like this one will be present in every Rundown from now until the end of the season unless something changes. The Jazz once again were totally allergic to getting out and running on the break, attempting just six field-goals (going a miserable 2-6) and finishing with eight points only due to free throws. Snyder addressed the problem head on after the game, noting that on this night he felt the root of the issue began with their defense.
“The transition and the easy baskets can make the basket bigger,” Snyder said. “Get to the foul line, make a foul shot, get out on the break and get a layup — that has a tendency to help you if you’re not shooting well. We just didn’t do that because we didn’t guard. For me it’s all connected, but for us the defense is where we have the most control.”
On this night, he was right — Gordon Hayward had the exact same thing to say during his own media availability. The problem is, even on other nights when the team has created a larger number of misses and turnovers, the same problems have occurred. The Jazz are slowly but surely approaching a point where their efficiency on transition chances is among the worst of any reasonable sample size since Synergy Sports began tracking such figures, and worse yet are attempting one of the five lowest per-game shots on the break. There’s hardly anything else to say at this point; it has to improve, and quickly.
Trey Burke was excellent: Amid a number of negatives, Trey Burke’s play Wednesday night was very good. He had 17 points on 7-13 shooting, and made few mistakes defensively against Portland’s red hot guard combo. With the exception of the season opener in Detroit, his play has been at a higher level than we became accustomed to last year. Especially defensively, Trey has found a happy medium with his game — his footwork and anticipation are much improved, and he’s not getting stuck in picks so easily. He had the best on-court defensive rating of any rotation Jazz player Wednesday.
Ball movement is severely lacking: The Jazz finished with nine assists on Wednesday night, the lowest figure for any Utah team in basketball-reference.com’s database2. While Snyder was rightly a bit too focused on the group’s defensive issues for the night, this is another area that’s quickly becoming a concern — Utah’s 14.5 assists per game for the year easily rank last in the NBA, and it’s not close. Some of this Wednesday was a failure to convert on good looks, something Snyder noted. That’s part of the issue, though, and even on nights when the team’s defense is up to snuff, they’re going to have a hard time beating the league’s better teams with that sort of ball movement and execution.
A new offensive set! Ever the nerd that I am, I noticed a fun new set from the Jazz in the second quarter Wednesday:
Most were caught up at the time in what would have been a poster dunk from Alec Burks had it not clanged off iron, but watch it again and you’ll see a great new wrinkle from the Jazz. Trey Burke brings the ball up the court, then enters to Rudy Gobert on the opposite elbow — this first bit is unorthodox on its own for the Jazz, who usually either enter on the strong side or reverse the ball around the perimeter. From there, with the defense already off guard, Burke sprints into an unusual screen on Burks’ man as Alec runs around what effectively becomes a double pick with Gobert, who doesn’t have to do anything but hand it off to Burks as he rockets down the lane.
More of this, please, coach Snyder! This isn’t anything particularly complex for the Jazz to run, but it has the potential to flummox defenses much more used to seeing basic side-to-side action from the Jazz. Creating these sorts of diagonal angles and forcing multiple defenders to wonder who they should be looking at is always a good thing, especially when it can get a finisher like Burks momentum to the hoop with space. Even if Portland’s rim defense had been there a bit quicker, sets like this will open things up around the floor for the Jazz as defenses scramble to find their men.