1. Utah’s dominoes are beginning to fall into place.
The Jazz had a rough go of it down the stretch tonight in a tough building versus a desperate team, but once again hung with (and outplayed for periods) a presumed contender. Just as in Wednesday’s surprising domination of a full-strength Bulls team in Chicago, Utah didn’t look the least bit nervous or intimidated despite Oklahoma City’s star power and boisterous crowd.
Perhaps the most encouraging part of the team’s recent strong run of play, outside the raw results, has been the way the players have gelled – not only with each other, but also within their system. Quin Snyder’s process is doing its work as the season goes on, and tonight’s game was a perfect microcosm for his group’s increased understanding and acceptance of their roles within his scheme.
Utah’s bigger names – Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, and Trey Burke – combined for 69 of the team’s 94 points on 28-50 shooting (56 percent), setting the tone offensively in an aggressive fashion. Rudy Gobert struggled to make an impact on that end, but was his usual destructive self on the defensive side of the ball, swatting a career-high seven Thunder shots and swiping three steals on top of those. And most noticeably tonight, Utah’s reserves played a strong game amid Snyder’s decision to go only eight deep for one of the first times all season. Dante Exum, Trevor Booker and Elijah Millsap handled OKC’s bench units convincingly, and these three sported Utah’s best per-possession rating while on the floor tonight as a result.
Booker and Millsap made particularly loud impressions. Trevor had a strong game on the glass, rebounding nearly a quarter of all available boards while on the floor, and hit perhaps the NBA’s shot of the year to beat a 0.2 shot clock near the end of the first half. Elijah nailed three straight triples in an out-of-nowhere heat check earlier in the game, and played hounding defense on several Thunder players from Russell Westbrook to Kevin Durant – perhaps too hounding, in fact, as he picked up four personal fouls in 29 minutes and is now averaging over six whistles per-36-minutes on the season, something he needs to tone down.
But overall, it’s heartening to see things come together so well for a young Jazz team that had struggled to find its identity for much of the year. Guys know their jobs and are doing them with enthusiasm, and things should only continue trending upward from here despite a tough loss to a great team tonight.
2. Turnovers and fast break points killed the Jazz tonight.
Utah shot a better percentage from the field, won the rebounding battle, and made nearly double OKC’s free throws – but all these couldn’t offset the head start they gave the Thunder with turnovers and the resulting fast breaks. The Jazz coughed the ball up 20 times on the night compared with 14 for OKC, and the Thunder capitalized with 25 points in transition to just 11 for Utah. Russell Westbrook was particularly dangerous, grabbing three steals as the Jazz underestimated his gambling tendencies defensively, and spearheading or finishing off several fast breaks.
Most worrying here is that Utah had a number of chances, especially early in the game, to keep this battle closer and were unable to capitalize. It’s becoming a bit of an issue for the Jazz despite their success recently – guys across the roster don’t quite seem to have their timing and angles down pat on odd-man opportunities, and are often flubbing numbers advantages when they should be getting easy points. I counted several such instances just in tonight’s first quarter, culminating with the now-infamous Joe Ingles “pass up a layup and throw the ball into traffic to a trailing player” routine:
Jingles had more than one of these type of plays tonight, though the others weren’t in transition and a couple resulted in baskets anyway. But to the larger overall point, Snyder ought to consider (if he hasn’t already) the occasional drill in practice for this sort of thing. 2-on-1’s or 3-on-2’s should result in layups or dunks a huge percentage of the time, and the Jazz just aren’t converting them frequently enough. These free points are crucial in close games, and in one that came down to the final minute before being decided, Utah has to wish they had a couple of those chances back.
3. Scott Brooks and his curious coaching tendencies.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks certainly isn’t getting mentioned among the greats at his position anytime soon, and he continues to flummox even outside observers with a number of peculiar decisions. His schemes (or lack thereof) have long drawn criticism, as have his substitution patterns and rotations, the latter of which was on display at several points tonight.
For starters, in a league where coaches have generally begun to realize the value of keeping at least one star-level player on the floor as often as possible to avoid long droughts, Brooks seems to often trend in the opposite direction. According to PopcornMachine.net, he chose to keep Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka all off the floor simultaneously for over ten combined minutes tonight, or just short of one full quarter. During these minutes, the Thunder were outscored by 17 points, mostly by Jazz reserves, meaning that in the other 38 minutes of the game, lineups with at least one of these three outscored the Jazz by 22 points.
One just has to wonder what Brooks is thinking. Layering substitutions is a simple concept employed by most of the league’s coaches, and it wouldn’t be tough at all for him to stagger Durant or Westbrook in such a way as to leave someone with creation abilities on the floor for even a couple minutes longer per half.
It wasn’t the only puzzling call he made on the night. Dion Waiters is an intriguing piece in new surroundings, but given his well-earned defensive reputation, is playing him in defensive situations in crunch time over Reggie Jackson (or even Andre Roberson) really advisable? For that matter, is Waiters getting 11 more minutes on the court than Jackson healthy for OKC? What’s the point of starting Steven Adams if Kendrick Perkins is still going to get more minutes than he is? Just a thoroughly confusing set of decisions.
As is frequently the case, Brooks was bailed out by his superstars’ remarkable talents. And while NBA coaching is absolutely a far tougher job than most assume, and he’s certainly proven himself as a motivator and a voice who can communicate with stars like KD and Russ, one has to wonder at some point whether he’s a good enough in-game coach and decision-maker to get this team over the hump when vital playoff games hang in the balance. They got away with one tonight, but the margin of error is drastically small for this team the rest of the year, and Brooks needs to stay sharp.
The Jazz are back in action tomorrow night in Houston taking on the Rockets at 6:00 PM MST. Be sure to check back in to Salt City Hoops after the game for your usual dose of coverage.