Calling Quin Snyder a psychic might be jumping the shark a tad, right?
Multiple times leading up to the first of three straight games for the Jazz against elite Western opponents, Snyder reinforced a point: he just wanted his group to come out and play in the way he knew they were capable of. “You can play well and lose” is something we’ve heard uttered by the second-year coach on more than one occasion — Snyder knew this to be the case for a still-shorthanded Jazz squad facing some of the toughest teams and specific matchups in the league.
He couldn’t have been more right on this night, even as he and his players alike are clearly starting to grow sick of talking about moral victories rather than actual ones. It may not have felt like it after a gruesome first few minutes that put the Jazz in a hole they wouldn’t climb to the top of until about 45 minutes of game time later, but Utah went toe-to-toe with a presumed title contender and held their own for all but those first few minutes.
“This is a game that I was really proud of how we competed,” said Snyder following the game. “It was a very physical game. I thought we took that challenge. You step back from it, you can see it that way — but it takes a little time.”
You can forgive his players if “a little time” spans well beyond the period during which media were allowed in the locker room. These guys know what’s about to be asked at this point. They’d much prefer to be answering different questions.
“It definitely is [frustrating],” said Gordon Hayward of the broken record they’ve been treated to after a number of games just like this one. “Answering the same question over and over. At least we’re fighters, and we gave ourselves a chance there.”
They’ll lament many of the little things on this night — missed free throws, untimely offensive stagnation and of course that abysmal opening stretch. But that always seems to be the case in these games. A missed chance here, a blown play there, and a game that was otherwise winnable barely slipped through their grasp.
Still, it’d be silly to take nothing positive away from this game, especially after the way the Jazz fell flat over a full 48 minutes the last time these teams played. Let’s get into some of the particulars.
42.3-28.6-66.7 — Shooting splits (FG%-3P%-FT%) for the Jazz Friday night. Frankly, to come within one ridiculous Kevin Durant triple of beating a Western Conference contender with ugly shooting numbers like these is nothing to laugh at. Moral victories remain just that, though.
56.25% — Gordon Hayward’s percentage from deep in the month of December. He’s canned well over half of his triples since the middle of November. More on his effort on the other end below.
“There’s no way I’m going to criticize the way our guys played defense down the stretch. We were tuned in. I think it’s the best we’ve communicated.”
-Quin Snyder discussing crunch time defense, something that’s been an issue he’s raised for this team at other points in the year. He’s right, by the way, and acknowledged that the Thunder simply have players who can beat you even when you play perfectly.
Early bird gets the win: “The difference in the game was the beginning for us. Coming out flat, having to call timeout… we’re fighting from behind for the rest of the game.”
Hayward’s thoughts basically summed it up, and were especially poignant because the question he was being asked didn’t even touch on the start of the game, but rather the end. He was in no mood to put the loss on a made shot by Kevin Durant or a miss by Trey Burke, because in his eyes the bigger cause of the final score came in the game’s first few minutes.
From every standpoint, scientific to gut, he’s right. The issue has plagued the team throughout the year, seeming to dissipate for stretches when it’s clearly being emphasized but then popping up again at inopportune times. Stagnant offense was the issue Friday, with several of the Jazz’s early possessions ranging from “stand around for a while” to “run one pick, give up, then iso.” Snyder talked about how their inability to score had them on the back foot, and then Thunder buckets on the other end caused the issues to compound as the Jazz had to consistently play against a set defense as the hole grew. The beginning of games needs to be more of an emphasis for this team, and not just for a game or two. It has to stick.
Good work (mostly) on KD, Russ: Frankly, one can’t ask for a much better job than the Jazz did against OKC’s two superstars. There were lapses at times, yes, but these two manufacture those like a toy factory. Utah’s bigs, particularly Favors and Booker, did a great job on frequent switches onto Russ — they held him to the lesser of two evils with his pullup jumper, and were even successful enough to get hands up and challenge many of these. This switching on Russ’s pick-and-rolls helped neuter some of the lethal rotations that are often opened up when other strategies allow him to get a head of steam and/or find Serge Ibaka for his money midrange jumper.
Of course, once again the largest individual factor in the strong performance against the opposing stars was Hayward. It’s been harped on in this space perhaps too often, but it continues to be remarkable — Gordon has worked his tail off defending some of the best wings in the game this season and has consistently impressed. Durant was just 4-11 at one point in the fourth quarter before his ridiculous stretch run that realistically wasn’t being disrupted by any player on this planet, in large part because Hayward chased him off his spots ruthlessly and stayed in his face. At one point Gordon even got a hand on a KD jumper while coming from behind, a near-impossible task against a 6’11 guy who’s virtually impossible to block. The effort level from Hayward has been unreal, especially as of late when he’s been carrying the team offensively as well.
Missed chances: Apart from the start and end of the game, the Jazz can bemoan a few wasted opportunities to seize a better holding in the game. They missed eight free throws, made just eight of their 28 attempts from deep (several of which were wide, wide open) and screwed up at least two fast breaks which should have led to easy points. Who knows how things might have turned out had they capitalized just a couple more times?
Enough involvement for the stars late? It’s an issue we’ve discussed here before, and a tough one to manage in a motion system designed to get the best look possible and put less emphasis on specific individuals: It feels like teams are having just a bit too much success in certain games with limiting the impact Hayward and Favors have down the stretch. The two combined to use under a quarter of all Jazz possessions while on the floor in the final period — by comparison, they’ve used just under 50 percent of team possessions while on the court for the year as a whole.
Again, this can be tough to diagnose, in part because stats like usage and shot attempts can be incomplete metrics. The Jazz can make an effort to get these guys involved, but better shots can open up elsewhere. Still, it seems fair to wonder whether certain little items couldn’t be emphasized a bit more often; more Hayward-Favors pick-and-roll (Utah’s best set anyway most of the time), more deliberate effort to screen for the two (Hayward especially) to get them free for touches. It can be okay to deviate a bit from a team scheme in big moments, even if the math or logistics might indicate otherwise. This could consistently be a tough balance for the Jazz to achieve as they focus mostly on sticking to their principles on both ends.