The Triple Team: Jazz at Suns 2/6/15

February 7th, 2015 | by Clint Johnson
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This amount of airspace for Marcus Morris seems problematic, and it was a problem that just would not go away. (Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images)

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.

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson is a professional author, writing educator, and editor. He teaches writing at Salt Lake Community College. A frequent presenter at both writing and educational conferences, he writes about the Jazz as a break from his other writing work.

4 Comments

  1. LKA says:

    I think Trey is thinking too much about the Fan favorite break. Already on the second unit if he keeps having these three good games then four horrible games he will be on the trade table.All players have a off game or two. Seems like the Jazz have theirs as a group.As long as it only happens at the end of a ten game play very well it will be ok..Any NBA player can score in bunches. That is what these kids did in college. Even CJ had a couple of them while with the Jazz..

    • Clint Johnson says:

      CJ Miles is a legitimate NBA player; he just isn’t a high level NBA starter. There’s no shame in that. Anyone with a long NBA career is a really good basketball player. Trey has the possibility to build a long career. The complication that can’t be skirted around is that Trey has always been a ball-dominant shooting guard. By this I don’t mean a traditional 2 guard, but rather a guard who dominates the ball while also using a high percentage of possessions with jump shots. In the NBA, those players are almost always scoring punch off the bench unless they have the skill of a Stephen Curry.

      Burke used 26% and 28% of possessions at Michigan, and he’s fourth on the Jazz in USG% this season (almost tied with Derrick Favors). A player can’t do that while being so inefficient with his scoring. He either needs to learn how to contribute while using far fewer possessions (particularly with jump shots) or his scoring efficiency needs to drastically increase. His present combination of high volume, low efficiency scoring simply isn’t a formula for success on an NBA roster. He’s still young and is far from a finished product, but much more evolution in his game is a must.

  2. Spencer says:

    I really like your point about guard play. The good news, is that we have four players with complementary skillsets and potential to create a fantastic backcourt in 2-years. The bad news is that nobody has reached quality starter level of that group yet, and it is possible that they won’t.

    The other good news is there will likely be someone available when they draft. The reality is that if Hood and Burks are healthy we probably win another 5 games so that silver lining is a better potential pick in the upcoming draft. Stanley Johnson was at the top of my draft board for the Jazz, but I am drinking the D’Angelo Russell Kool-iad right now. (Please don’t burst my bubble and remind me his will be gone before we pick!)

    What I really enjoy is how the Jazz are actively searching for that 3 and D guy from the scraps. Dante Green and Damarre Carroll guys. The truth is, both these guys are available this offseason as well, and so is Dragic. Maybe Utah and Phoenix could do a Kanter for Dragic swap… Dragic is going to be unrestricted at the end of the year so his value is more in line with Kanter as a RFA.

    BTW Clint, when is someone going to write an article on the fact that the best team in the NBA has three starters the Jazz had, the team and fans loved, and they could have easily re-signed?

    I understood at the time why the Jazz thought they could let these guys walk, except for Demarre, why was it so hard to sign him to a 2.5 million dollar contract?

    The bright side of that bad news is this: If Atlanta can develop that type of team with those players, we can do the same if our players work and buy in like they do. Same blueprint, more athletic talent here, but not the shooting talent.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      I have a post about Exum coming up, but here’s the gist of my perspective on the Jazz’s young prospective point guards: it’s going to be a long road with an uncertain end. As for this year’s draft, I’m not crazy about any of the prospects, truth be told. Johnson would be my top choice for the Jazz, but I suspect he’ll be off the board when the Jazz pick. D’Angelo Russell as well (sorry!), though I’m not drinking that Koo-Aid yet.

      The Burks injury really hurt the Jazz this season. Badly.

      The Jazz really could use a great 3 and D player, but then, 29 other teams can say the same. As for Dragic for Kanter, I think that would make positional sense given the relative rosters, but I think the Suns would value Dragic more than that, and personally, I would agree. All things considered, I think it’s very likely Kanter is in a Jazz uniform next season.

      As for the Atlanta trio, it’s certainly worth a post. I’m with you on the topic of Demarre. When I learned he was moving on, honestly, I was as sorry to see him go as Millsap. While I loved Paul and still do, our young talent made that parting all but inevitable. But Carroll could still be in a Jazz uniform, playing well at a very affordable rate. I would have liked to see that.

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