We’d been saying it all year long. We’d said it over the summer. Shoot, we said it in the latter parts of last season: This Jazz team will be in the rough if they have to spend extended time without one of Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors or Rudy Gobert.
Did anyone expect that, though?
Yes, it’s just one game1. Yes, there’s context — Gobert, of course, and also Rodney Hood’s early injury that, while it didn’t force him out for the entire game, screwed up early rhythm and rotations. Yes, the opponent is better than their record would suggest, with a top-five player in the NBA on the roster. None of that covers what really can’t be chalked up as anything but a big letdown from the Jazz Wednesday night.
Most will rightfully look to a miserable stretch run as the area that most directly doomed the team on this night, but the malaise was in full effect long before that. The Pelicans, a team who entered this game 1-11 on the road, looked perfectly ready to go to 1-12 for the vast majority of the game — only the Jazz couldn’t capitalize. The game saw 16 lead changes and 16 ties as the teams battled through what often looked like a pickup game, with sloppiness abound on both ends for both squads. The inability of the Jazz to put away what should be an inferior team during the early parts of a game is just as worrying to this eye as anything that happened in a much smaller sample of minutes down the stretch.
Some will cry foul and point back to Gobert’s injury and other context, but the time for excuses for this group is running thin. The Jazz have already received a bit of an early Christmas present in the collective performance of the middle of the Western Conference, somehow sitting just a half game out of a playoff spot at 10-14 with a chance to jump back in if they can beat the Nuggets Friday night2 — with improvement from at least a couple teams around them almost a certainty, they can’t afford much more of this. Every team in the league has context surrounding their performance, be it injuries, slumps or anything in between.
Some will gravitate to the other end of the spectrum: This never should have been a playoff team anyway, and the current level of play is closer to reality than what we saw last year. That’s just as egregious to this eye; the collective skill level is absolutely there for this team, and those discounting a 30-game sample with virtually the exact same roster3 last season are doing so unwisely. No, the reality lies in the middle: This group has the necessary skills, and simply needs to do more. Quin Snyder put it best:
“This is about our group as a whole needing to compete more at the right times and make plays.”
30 — Utah’s rank league-wide for defensive efficiency since Rudy Gobert was injured. Yup, dead last. Again, while the inclination here is to just pawn this entire thing off on Rudy’s absence, that’s lazy and flat wrong — Utah’s defensive figure with Rudy off the floor before his injury took place was 97.7, a top-five number in the league and a very far cry from the 111.2 they’re giving up since his MCL sprain.
“We’re not even close,” said Gordon Hayward when asked about the team’s level defensively compared to where it needs to be. “Too many breakdowns… jumping on shot fakes, letting guys go middle, just not really executing our system. We’ve got to find a way to do that.”
50 — Percent of offensive rebound chances4 the Jazz allowed to the Pelicans, who collected eight of the 16 chances they had on the game. In comparison, the Jazz collected five of their 17 chances. This data is an incomplete proxy, especially over a single game, but it’s a microcosm of a larger issue: How is Utah losing the rebound battle to a team playing Ryan Anderson at power forward for 34 minutes, while starting two virtual 7-footers? It’s another indication that the effort level and force is nowhere near where it needs to be currently, and particularly in this game.
“We were hot in the third quarter, and the fourth quarter we cooled off and let this one slip away.”
“We were up in the third, and that’s where we need to take and make it 15, 16 and close out the game.”
Defensive culture, withering: While, again, most will raise issues down the stretch on this night, the breakdowns defensively began much earlier. To illustrate, let’s look at all four 3s hit by Eric Gordon in the first quarter alone, during which he outpaced the Jazz in both attempts and makes from deep on his own.
The first one was on the first play of the game. Rodney Hood helps down on a drive that two other Jazz players had contained, leaving the Pellies’ best shooter one pass away from a wide open triple:
The next one isn’t so bad — Trey Burke is probably a little too far off Gordon, considering he’s not helping anyone at the top of the key, and while his contest should have been earlier, it’s not the worst play of the bunch:
Third is another incredibly simple breakdown, as Gordon takes the most routine handoff you could imagine from Jrue Holiday, both Jazz guards sag off for no reason at all, and Gordon gets another easy one:
And finally, on this last one Gordon completely leaves Elijah Millsap, supposedly the team’s best perimeter defender, in the dust while Millsap takes a terrible route around an Anthony Davis screen he should have been expecting. Open corner 3:
The entire game, and really much of the team’s play in the last couple weeks, has been marked by these sorts of huge errors from the Jazz. We just weren’t seeing these last season, whether or not Gobert was standing on the court. Something’s missing from this team defensively, and it’s more than a single player of any kind.
Favors’ monster 3rd: The one clear positive on this night was Derrick Favors’ performance in the third quarter, where he set a career high in points for a single frame with 16 and was easily the best player on the floor. He roasted Anthony Davis on the block multiple times, even when Davis had his entire forearm wrapped around Favors’ waist. He should have had two assists to go along with his gaudy point total, but Jazz shooters bricked a couple open 3s Derrick created for them by slipping a couple screens early, catching the ball in space on the roll and drawing hard help. It was just a pity that such a fine effort went to waste.
Ryan Anderson, superstar? You might have thought it Wednesday night. Anderson set a career high of his own with 13 attempted free throws against the Jazz, and consistently lit up whoever Utah had on him on the way to 24 points on just 10 shot attempts. Trey Lyles had absolutely no chance in his time on Anderson, and Trevor Booker wasn’t much better. Jazz fans may have hoped Anderson’s performance was a trade showcase, but in a more immediate and realistic sense, it was a problem for the Jazz that they struggled so badly to contain him.
Spot minutes from Neto: Raul Neto also performed well in his 10 minutes on the court, and this seems a much more ideal role in which to use him. Not tasked with the tall order of going toe to toe with the game’s best point guards in the starting unit, and asked to stay more within his skill set, Neto was a plus-2 on the night and gave the Jazz a real energy boost in the third along with Favors. There’s an impulse to cry that this means he should be playing more, but finding these niche opportunities feels like the better way to go when the Jazz have better options for the minutes against opposing stars.
No small? Questioning Quin Snyder’s lineup choices feels like some combination of sacrilege and stupidity, but here goes: Why didn’t the Jazz play small at any point against New Orleans? Particularly in that miserable stretch run, as the Jazz were falling further and further out of the game, it seems like this could have been the way to go rather than having Lyles on the court with two minutes left in the game. The Jazz were losing the rebound battle to a team featuring Anderson at the 4 anyway, and while Snyder correctly pointed out that Anderson is a great post player and could potentially hurt a smaller matchup, a point comes where you have to consider risking that trade-off to get some more scoring punch in the game. A team like New Orleans with Anderson represents one of the clearest opportunities in the league to downsize at times, especially while behind, and it was a bit surprising to see a guy like Lyles (or even Trevor Booker for a longer stretch) out there in favor of any of Burks/Hood/Burke as the Jazz tried to claw back and couldn’t find their scoring punch.