1. Trey Burke was Utah’s best player tonight, and had perhaps his best two-way game as a pro.
Utah’s second-year point guard has been playing well for a period now, but tonight really seemed to up the ante. His offense has been a mostly steady factor much of the season and was again versus the Bucks, with Trey grabbing 26 points and six assists to lead the team in both categories.
But the more encouraging part of his game against Milwaukee was the way he defended. Facing a tough matchup with a Bucks team that often runs out lineups without a single player under 6’7 or so, Trey was taken into the post a couple times early by Michael Carter-Williams with success. But as the game wore on and the Jazz changed up their coverages, Burke ended up switched onto 6’11 Giannis Antetokounmpo on multiple occasions one-on-one, and more than held his own. The Greek phenom couldn’t get an edge on Trey despite a huge size and length advantage, and often tried a simple move or two before giving up and kicking the ball elsewhere. Trey even forced him into a turnover with excellent positioning late in the first half:
“He’s gonna be forced into situations where he might be a little smaller, and he might have a mismatch,” Gordon Hayward told me postgame when I asked about Trey’s defensive effort. “And as long as he fights and competes, he does a great job of making sure that he gets deflections and it’s not too easy.”
As Gordon says, Burke will often be put in scenarios where he gives up a physical advantage to opponents due to his stature. But tonight was another among an encouraging group of recent games that showcase how he can leverage the abilities he does have1, and it’s a welcome sight to the team. Should he continue to make these sort of strides, it’s easy to see a long-term spot for him given the way his offensive game has blossomed in a sixth man role. He knows what’s expected of him and is working very hard on both ends to improve, with noticeable results. Game ball to Trey for tonight.
2. Utah emulated the Bucks’ defensive style on several occasions tonight, with excellent results.
Before the game, I asked Quin Snyder about Milwaukee’s approach to defense, one that had them second in the league in per-possession defensive efficiency coming into the night. The Bucks employ several guards and wings of similar heights and builds2 and often play small with only one traditional big on the floor, allowing them to switch nearly all opponent pick-and-roll actions, a dangerous weapon for a defense that can shut down the league’s most common play type. I wondered aloud to Quin whether that might be a model for the Jazz going forward with longer guards and wings like Dante Exum, Rodney Hood, Alec Burks, Elijah Millsap and Gordon Hayward.
“The position that really tips that for most teams is the four,” he said in response. “We’re able to do some of that with one, two, and three, with Dante as you mentioned, and Joe Gordon and Elijah. There’s some versatility there. But where you really start to make an impact defensively with switching is when you can switch with the four.”
He noted how the Bucks will often go with Antetokounmpo or another longer wing at the power forward position similar to what Golden State does with Draymond Green, but also cautioned that any attempt to emulate this strategy by the Jazz couldn’t come at the expense of the bigger lineups they feel comfortable playing.
“It’s something we’ve thought about and worked towards, and I like it,” Quin said. “When you see Derrick out there, you know, he’s long – it’s not like Draymond Green out there, it’s different in that sense. But we’re faced with it a lot just from the standpoint that we’re big and someone else may go small – do we chase a matchup or do we stay with who we are? And I believe we’ve gotta stay with who we are.”
By the end of the game, it actually appeared as though the Jazz had found the best of both worlds. They stayed big and never downsized to match the Bucks, even when Milwaukee went almost exclusively small down the stretch in an attempt to engineer a comeback. But at the same time, Utah did a ton of switching, from the above-noted Trey-on-Giannis occasions to Favors jumping out and guarding the perimeter with success. The Jazz played the Bucks at their own game on the defensive end without compromising their identity, and ended up holding yet another opponent to a sub-80-point outing while continuing what’s been the NBA’s best per-possession defense since the All-Star break. Their communication and movement remains worlds apart from what we saw earlier in the year, and the addition of more adaptable strategies like the one we saw tonight will do nothing but add to the encouragement.
3. Hayward struggles, but the Jazz gut out another win nonetheless.
Gordon Hayward was on a torrid stretch heading into the break, but has struggled to find his rhythm and range in the five games since. He’s down to an ugly 35.5 percent from the field since the team’s return from All-Star vacations, a far cry from the intensely efficient games he was throwing up routinely before then. His struggles were even more pronounced tonight in a 4-18 showing from the floor, one where he wasn’t even able to contribute much in other areas of the game.
Despite this, though, the team was able to eke out a gritty win over a playoff opponent. It’s their fourth win in this five-game stretch despite the issues facing Gordon, a player who has set the tone for them on the court for much of the year. And far from worrying about the struggles of their leader, the Jazz embraced the challenge and banded together in his stead.
“If he’s struggling, you know, just gotta find another way to get going,” Derrick Favors told me after the game. “And guys stepped up – Trey played big today, Book came off the bench and provided a lot of energy, Rudy played good. You know, everybody just gave a great effort today. Even though Gordon had an off-night tonight, you know, we need that in a way, for everybody else to step up.”
Derrick’s comments seemed to serve as a microcosm for much of the attitude that’s seen the Jazz take such large strides over just a few short months. The team has come to fully understand how important it is to behave as a cohesive, five-man unit on both ends of the floor. When one guy is in a rough patch, it’s the others’ responsibility to fill the void. Utah will continue to find success moving forward as they embrace this mantra, and it’s a sight to behold for those who have been watching the team hoping for just such a revelation for several years.