1. Two matchups with Boston this year have exposed some flaws in Utah’s team construct.
This game will be most discussed for the events in the final minute, but the other 47, combined with a January home loss to these same Celtics, have revealed a few chinks in the armor of a Jazz team that has seemed to display nothing but positives recently. The Celtics aren’t world-beaters by any stretch, but they appear to have identified something of a blueprint for slowing down a Utah group that’s been beating folks up down low to a high degree.
What’s worrying, of course, isn’t the two losses. Their place in the standings is all but meaningless at this point beyond their draft slot1, and process is far more important in the long run. But that’s the crux of this point; if the Celtics, a marginally-talented team at best that only spends portions of its time in small-ball lineups, can neutralize so much of Utah’s advantage down low, what will happen against much more skilled opponents who utilize the style as part of their primary identity?
Quin Snyder has been resolute in his desire to stick with his team’s strong points, and for the most part this has paid off as Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors terrorize opposing frontcourts. But Boston leaned more and more on super-tiny units tonight, and the Jazz had no answer. Jae Crowder went for 18 points as Utah was consistently unable to stick with him on pick-and-rolls, not much of a surprise given a notable quickness advantage over guys like Favors and Trevor Booker. The Jazz didn’t play bad defense by any stretch, but seemed to be a bit more confused and yield a few more good looks than they typically have in their recent stifling stretch of defense. There were several notable occasions where Jazz players lost their men coming back down the court and gave up easy baskets on mismatches, and though some of this is just plain brain-fart, some may also be due to a bit of confusion because of a difference from their normal style of matchup.
The larger worry by far, though, was on the other end of the floor. If the Jazz are going to stay big when teams downsize against them, they absolutely must be able to win the battle down low convincingly and get enough easy baskets to make teams think twice about trying to space them out. Utah did win the points in the paint battle tonight, but it was by only four points (36-32), and there wasn’t enough emphasis on getting the bigs, particularly Derrick Favors, involved. Despite having Crowder or a similar mismatch on him nearly the entire game, Favors attempted just 10 shots (he made seven, unsurprisingly), four of which were in the fourth quarter when the Jazz did seem to finally run the offense through him a bit more. Boston did a good job of denying him post entries at times, but this is in many ways the point; Utah needs to have answers for this stuff when the games start to really matter, and there have been several occasions this year versus smaller teams like this where they haven’t.
There’s plenty of time to iron this out, and the current roster certainly may change in the future in ways that could make this less of a concern.2 But Quin appears to have encountered his first major schematic challenge as Jazz coach, and it’ll be interesting to see how he and the team respond going forward.
2. Jazz show more of their patented resilience in the 4th quarter.
We’ve noted several times this year how this Jazz team has exponentially more fight in them than a couple recent years, and it was present tonight as well. On the road coming off a tough win Tuesday night in Memphis3, it would have been easy enough for them to give up down eight or nine points in the fourth. Instead, they fought for every possession as is their custom, and the result was a game they likely should have won on a gorgeous step-back from Gordon Hayward.
Favors was great down the stretch, and Hayward hit another big shot despite continuing to struggle both from the field and overall since the All-Star break. Trey Burke could have shown a bit more selectivity with his shots and also a bit more urgency given the deficit down the stretch, but he did a good job of at least forcing Boston’s defense to account for him and move around as the Jazz made their run. Even in a fairly ugly game with a few notable question marks, the Jazz displayed positive signs.
3. Analyzing a couple big decisions by Quin Snyder down the stretch.
Allow me the honor of second-guessing a coach who, by basically any notable measure, has done an incredible job for the Jazz this season. One area Quin has found himself grappling with has been imperfections on his roster, and some of this just comes with the territory. The small-ball issues discussed above are just this sort of struggle; given his personnel, there’s only so much Snyder can do when teams downsize against his big front line.
He’s an NBA rookie too, though, and the occasional question is certainly warranted. Tonight it’s the way the Jazz defended Isaiah Thomas, particularly in the second half when Boston’s new addition went for 19 points and three assists, willing the Celtics to the win virtually on his own. Again, this is a situation where there’s no perfect answer – Utah’s personnel simply doesn’t offer a sure-thing solution to a speedster like Thomas. But the decision to check Thomas with Rodney Hood and Joe Ingles (only a possession or two in the latter case) down the stretch seems curious, mostly because neither is much of a defender even at their own position. Neither had any chance whatsoever of keeping up with Thomas, and the Jazz even found themselves staring down a dreaded five-on-three on a couple occasions when Thomas split screens so quickly that both he and the roll man were ahead of Utah’s two corresponding defenders. Hiding a guy like Burke is standard, but if his replacements are getting beaten just as badly (they were), it makes more sense to stick to the original matchup and try more in the way of traps or well-placed double-teams.4 Dante Exum may have also been an option (Quin used him on Thomas for the final possession), though he was struggling badly for much of the game offensively. In any case, expect the answers to be more swift and more efficient next time around.
And then, of course, there’s that fateful final play. First things first: switching everything the way the Jazz did is absolutely the correct play in such a scenario, and this was an exemplary play call from Boston coach Brad Stevens with this knowledge in mind. Furthermore, as Quin noted postgame, Utah has consistently put length on the inbound passer in these situations this year, so going with Gobert on Marcus Smart on the sidelines isn’t the least bit out of character. And as our own Dan Clayton noted on Twitter, much of the harm here came when Rodney Hood was slow to recognize a switch, leaving Tyler Zeller just enough space to collect a perfect pass from Smart and lay it in for the win.
My only quibble here5 relates to the specific game context, particularly the clock and the personnel. With about 1.5 seconds left, even a giant like Gobert likely won’t be enough to drastically alter the potential shot – a good coach like Stevens has multiple inbounds drawn up without question, and even if Rudy forces a tough pass, there’s enough time for a dribble or two and a shot. Furthermore, it’s obvious that down one point and with time for just one attempt, a look closer to the hoop has to be a real possibility. Throw in the fact that Hood is a rookie who has missed a lot of time this year and isn’t known for his defensive prowess, plus the fact that a switch to a bigger guy is fully within the realm of possibility, and I think it’s very close indeed.
Basically, my own risk-reward calculus seems to favor allowing what would have only been a slightly easier inbound pass for Smart with Hood on him6 while retaining Gobert’s services down low. Gobert and Favors have far more experience switching with each other, and had been doing so with Boston’s small-ish lineups (like the one they had out to close) all game. Switches elsewhere mean that even if Hood allows an easy inbound pass on the perimeter, any jumper is going to be well-contested and have a very low probability rather than an inexperienced player being forced to switch onto a much bigger guy so close to the basket.
Again, it’s super close and the delay from Hood is likely the largest culprit in the end. If he makes the switch seamlessly, this is very possibly all a moot point. But given the specific context and the personnel on the floor for both teams, it seemed worthy of a second look and may do so again in the future in similar scenarios.