The Jazz’s force was awakened Friday night1.
When one gets past the corniness, that’s actually a relatively apt description of a much-needed win over the Nuggets, particularly down the stretch. Quin Snyder and his team use the term “force” all the time, perhaps more than any other unit in the league, to describe the overall control they’re exerting over the game, among other things. Tonight was the first time in a little while that it’s been this visible.
To be frank, while a plus in the win column heals all, Utah looked a lot like the stagnant group that’s had trouble finding life at times for many of the early parts of this game. We’ll get into more detail below, but the Jazz had multiple opportunities where they went up 10 or so and looked to be ready to put the game mostly to bed, only to freeze up for a few possessions at a time and let Denver back in. There was a point in the second half where, down four, it looked like the game might even be slipping away completely.
The response that followed was the most encouraging bit of play we’ve seen from this team in a week or two, regardless of opponent quality2. After a horrid stretch to open the fourth quarter minus Gordon Hayward, the Jazz took the reins and controlled the game when their leader came back in. They finished at a plus-six during what NBA.com defines as “clutch” play — under five minutes left and the game within five points — but this likely understated the degree to which they stepped up their play.
Everything was more FORCEful. Snyder pointed to the defensive end, unsurprisingly, and he had every reason to; Friday’s performance compared with Wednesday against the Pelicans was just night and day. The Jazz looked like last year’s team down the stretch, harassing Nuggets ball-handlers and walling off driving lanes before guys even had a chance to get to Derrick Favors at the rim. Their timing on switches and rotations was nothing short of perfect, a welcome sight after several games (and long stretches during this one) where they seemed off.
Just like their rough patch recently was just a few games, this was still just one. Snyder has made a point of not getting too low recently, and did the same on the other end of the spectrum Friday night. Still, it has to be encouraging for the guys on the court to feel themselves back at a level we’ve seen from them before — something Quin begrudgingly admitted before his media availability was over.
The challenge now will be maintaining that level, first over a full game and then over a stretch of games. A charge into the new year could erase some early panic in Jazzland in a huge hurry as they anticipate Rudy Gobert’s return, but they’ve got several tough matchups yet where they’ll need to channel their force in this manner more consistently. May they live long and prosper3.
97.8 — Utah’s defensive rating against Denver. Figures like these were basically the norm down the stretch last year, but given the way things have gone recently, it has to feel good for the Jazz to get back down into the single digits, even for a night.
21.4 — Percentage the Nuggets shot from 3, on an ugly 6-28. In this one particular sense, the Jazz may have been lucky they didn’t have a larger hole to climb out of. SportVU tracking via NBASavant tells us that Denver shot just 5-22, or just under 23 percent, on “open” 3s where a defender was not within four feet — the Nuggets have connected on nearly 36 percent of these shots on the year. If they shoot their season average, they make three more of these for nine more points, which was the eventual Jazz margin of victory. Utah’s 3-point defense came on as the game went along, but was still a point worthy of addressing.
“We’ve been frustrated, struggling, banged up and sore, but it’s a good time to get a win for us. We needed it.”
Hayward: Nah, no pun or witty accompaniment. Just Hayward. He was everything the Jazz needed and more once again, continuing a stretch of play that’s honestly becoming a little unreal in certain areas. Hayward continues to shoot over 50 percent from 3 on a high volume of attempts since the middle of November4, and as written in this space a little while back, continues to shoulder a remarkable burden defensively for how much the team leans on him as their offensive focal point. The two are connected, as Quin Snyder explained.
“I think he played really good defense,” Snyder said. “When he’s locked in defensively, I think it just makes him more aggressive on offense.”
In particular, Hayward was able to find a lot of success late, when no-point-guard lineups from Snyder gave him a juicy matchup with Jameer Nelson on the block on a few consecutive possessions. He took advantage in a big way, part of what propelled the Jazz down the stretch. Another was the way the Jazz were able to get him and Derrick Favors more involved — the two combined to use over 50 percent of Jazz possessions in the fourth quarter, an area that had lacked in a few close ones recently.
Fouls and offensive boards: These two items, along with the 3-point defense noted above, nearly doomed the Jazz before they turned on the jets. The Nuggets had topped their season-long average of roughly 11 offensive boards per game by midway through the third quarter, and finished with 14 second-chance field goal attempts — the Jazz were probably lucky they only converted six of these for 13 points. They tightened down late, though, allowing just two in the fourth quarter total.
The contrast with fouls was even larger. The Jazz committed 18 personals through the first three quarters, just three shy of Denver’s season-long average drawn for full games — but completely turned it around in the fourth, committing just a single infraction the entire frame. It would be entirely fair to say that these two specific areas, and the way the Jazz reversed them in the fourth, told the story of the game.
Jingle Bells! What better time of the year than this for a nice game from Joe Ingles. His box score won’t come close to reflecting his impact — he played big minutes down the stretch, and was a big part of what allowed Hayward that juicy mismatch on Nelson.
“As a coach, you play the guys that are playing good or the guys you think are going to help you win, and tonight Joe was playing well,” Snyder said. “He really was playing well on defense as much as anything.”
This point was the key. Ingles provides excellent spacing whenever on the floor, but whether he can play solid enough defense to remain on the floor is always the question. He was up to the task Friday, collecting three steals in his 17 minutes and doing enough with his length to neutralize any mismatch the Nuggets could have thought to create. Meanwhile, with the Nuggets forced to play Nelson on someone down the stretch and no Jazz point guard on the floor to stick him on, Hayward got his looks and the Jazz won the game.
Long term, one hopes this re-ignites Ingles’ place in the rotation. He may not be Elijah Millsap defensively, but to this eye the gap between the two on the other end of the floor is exponentially larger — if Jingles can give this sort of effort defensively for these sort of minutes consistently, there’s really no reason he shouldn’t play over Eli at this point.