1. Styles Make Fights, and The Jazz Lost This Fight
When these Jazz play these Suns it’s always a fascinating combat of style: Utah’s power, with one more talented big than may fit on the roster, and Phoenix’s quickness and speed, with one more point guard than may fit on the roster. For this night, at least, David defeated Goliath.
The Suns’ offense is all about shooting, with their penetration functioning primarily as a mechanism to create kick out jump shot opportunities. In stark contrast, the Jazz are built to score in the paint through size and strength and an elite ability to eat offensive glass. Each team managed to take away a major element of their opponent’s winning formula. The Jazz actually outscored the Suns in the open court, racking up 18 fast break points to Phoenix’s 15. The Suns countered by outscoring the much larger and stronger Jazz on second chance points, 9 to a puny 6.1
Otherwise, however, each team fought its fight, so to speak. The Jazz pummeled their smaller opponents in the paint, 46 to 28. Unfortunately, Jeff Hornacek’s team channeled the spirit of their sweet-shooting captain to shell the Jazz with a torrid 14 of 27 from beyond the arc.
Utah bullied the little guy early, totaling 8 of their 10 made first quarter shots from inside the paint.2 But Hornacek’s adjustment to flood the paint defensively and risk open jump shots swayed the game back into the Suns’ preferred style, and aside from a few bursts of interior muscle from the Jazz, kept it that way.
Judged purely on talent, any game between these two teams is a toss up. It was the Suns’ ability to impose their style of play that won the night.
2. You Can Only Hope to Contain… Marcus Morris?
Ever since Rudy Gobert started when Enes Kanter went out with an injured ankle, the Stifle Tower has been the biggest storm to sweep the NBA west of Miami and Hassan Whiteside. After half a season, his name has risen to frequent mention for possible runner up for most improved player.3 Currently, it isn’t at all uncommon for Jazz fans to name Gobert rather than Gordon Hayward or Derrick Favors as the most untouchable piece of the young Jazz core.
Before the season, I anticipated a breakout first half for Gobert as teams confronted the physical anomaly for the first time in extensive minutes. However, I also guessed that his impact would dampen somewhat toward the back end of the season as teams began to game plan for his defensive impact. Thus far, it appears I was right on both counts.
In Gobert’s first seven starts of the season, he rejected at least three shots each game. He has done that once in his last eight games. Teams are starting to understand that scoring in the paint can be tough sledding against the Jazz, particularly when Gobert and Favors pair as one of the premiere rim protecting duos in the league. So they’re adjusting, and the Suns’ adjustment led to a career night in multiple facets for Marcus Morris.4
Morris annihilated the Jazz with his mobility and activity, grabbing a career high 12 rebounds, as many as Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, and Trevor Booker corralled combined. The frenetic activity of the Suns combined with their many jump shots to create a wealth of long rebound opportunities, and Morris simply out-quicked Jazz bigs to many balls. But his shooting made him the best player on the court. Morris, a 6’9″, 235 lb. tweener prototype now valued as a stretch four, torched the Jazz for a career-high 34 points, 24 of which came in the first half. As Jazz bigs smothered penetration, Phoenix guards repeatedly kicked the ball out to shooters, including Morris, who nailed 5 of 7 threes.
Like all professional sports leagues, the NBA is a copycat enterprise, and stretch fours like Morris will only become more common. At present, that is a huge problem for a Jazz team with three of its four best players as traditional bigs loathe to leave the paint. If Quin Snyder and his players don’t figure out a way to guard mobile, sharpshooting big men, Morris won’t be the last player of his type to garner a career night against the Jazz.
3. The Jazz Core Is Increasingly Clear, as Is Their Most Desperate Need
Sports Illustrated‘s Ben Golliver recently christened Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward career Jazzmen in the making. They looked that caliber of players against the Suns. Neither played above their heads, but that’s the point, really. Average games for these two are starting to become better than most NBA players on good nights.
Hayward posted another fine all-around offensive performance: 24 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists on universally excellent shooting – 52.9% from the field (9 of 17), 50 from three (1 of 2), 83.3% from the line (5 of 6).
Favors was quietly the best overall Jazz player, welding 64.3% shooting (including 2 of 2 from the free throw line) for 20 points and a defensive gem of a game with 3 steals and a block to produce an outlandish +15 on the night.
Despite Gobert’s inability to guard the rim and the three point line simultaneously,5 he once again showed himself an indispensable piece to the Jazz’s exciting future. In 27 minutes of play, the lanky Frenchman scored 14 points on 6 of 7 shooting, gobbled up 12 rebounds, and dished out a delicious 4 assists to go with one block and steal each.
Those three players accounted for 62% of Jazz points, 51% of rebounds, 43% of assists, 50% of steals, and 50% of blocks, all while shooting 63% from the field and earning 12 of the team’s 18 free throw attempts. Not too shabby for a trio at the average age of 23.
Unfortunately, those excellent games were once again counterbalanced by what has likely become the most anemic guard play in the NBA. To put in perspective how desperate Quin Snyder is for production at the guard spot, Chris Johnson played 20 minutes and rewarded his young coach with the best production of the night from the position: 9 points, 2 rebounds, and 3 assists on three made three pointers.
Trey Burke’s mini-renaissance since coming off the bench fell off another cliff with a 2 of 13 shooting night, though to give him due credit, he was engaged defensively and even managed to lead the Jazz in blocks with 2. Dante Exum showed some life as well, hitting 2 of 3 three point shots while chipping in 3 rebounds and 4 assists. But when your guards, excluding players fresh out of the D-league, combine for 6 out of 28 shooting, you aren’t going to win many games.
As a team, the Jazz played lackluster basketball on the road against a good, if not great, team, and they only lost by 7. When the Jazz pair even an average NBA backcourt with frontcourt studs Favors, Hayward, and Gobert, this team will instantly make some noise. That may come by adding pieces to what’s already here or it may grow internally, but until one of these happens, frankly, the Jazz will lose games in which their best guys play well enough to win.