1. Utah was able to respond to Memphis’ runs, but can’t get closer than 5.
Let’s start by looking at the PopcornMachine graph of the scoreline in tonight’s game:
It was actually quite impressive: 4 separate times in tonight’s game, Memphis went on runs to push the lead above 12. Each time, the Jazz responded with a run of their own to get the lead back down within striking distance, within 6 or 7 points. Unfortunately, they never got closer than 5 points in the last 30 minutes of the game: they had the energy to make the fight back, but not all the way through to grab the lead.
If you trust me on this, you can skip this paragraph, but for those of you who are skeptical, here are a few data points. The Jazz had 4 wins in which they came back from more than 10 points last season, they’ve already matched that total this season. Last season, they were outscored by an average of 3.6 points in the 2nd half; this season, they’re outscoring opponents by 1.44 points per 2nd half. It happens on both ends of the floor: Utah has the 22nd ranked offense and 29th ranked defense in the first half. In the second half, that jumps all the way up to the 9th ranked offense and 17th ranked defense. It’s been a nice change.
I asked Trey Burke about this after the game, and he credited the improvement to increased continuity between teammates: now that the core is in it’s second year of playing major minutes, the team’s better able to respond to those times of adversity. That makes some sense. But I also think some of this is due to a rubberbanding effect, in which teams that are down play much better than normally. Check out this graph:
In short, this graph shows that teams who are up by significant margins start playing anywhere from 2-8 points per 100 possessions worse than their opponents. Likewise, teams who are down by significant margins begin to play 2-8 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents. There’s a very real rubberband effect 3 that keeps NBA games relatively close.
This is all to say: while it’s impressive that the Jazz are able to come back from deficits, I’ll be far more impressed when they’re able to get leads early and maintain them.
2. Another Trey/Dante comparison.
Dante Exum has now started 7 games over Trey Burke, and while the first 2 went quite well for the Australian Exum, the last 5 are raising some real concerns. In those 5 games, and in 120 minutes of play, Exum’s scored just 6 points, accumulated 10 rebounds and 10 assists4, has gotten to the line 0 times, and is shooting just 2-21 from the field and 2-16 from behind the arc. This is, well… not good enough for an NBA player. As Ben Dowsett wrote two weeks ago, Dante has really run into the rookie wall. He’s not attacking enough, all of his shots are short, and he does seem really tired at times. It’s sad, but understandable, given Exum’s incredibly limited experience at anywhere near the NBA level.
As a result, Burke has played more minutes (162) than Dante over the last 5 games, and is doing reasonably well. He’s scoring, albeit inefficiently (shooting just 38%), and is getting more assists than Exum. He’s even gone to the line 10 times, an improvement over his usual rate. Burke was probably Utah’s best offensive player tonight.
The only thing separating Burke and the starting lineup right now is defense: Burke’s been exploited this season on defense, especially when he plays with Enes Kanter. Splitting the two up, and using Exum’s length to prevent point guards from getting penetration while Enes is in the middle has been a relatively effective recipe for the Jazz. To his immense credit, Burke knows this, and has been focused on his defense as a route back to the starting lineup. If the Jazz were to make a Kanter trade at the deadline, it wouldn’t be particularly surprising to see Burke back in the starting unit.
3. Chris Johnson gets his first minutes for the Jazz.
Christapher [sic] Johnson played his first minutes in a Jazz uniform tonight, a result of the tired legs due to the back-to-back. Johnson ended up playing nearly 17 minutes with the team, and acquitted himself quite well, shooting 2-3 from the field, and getting one steal as well.
I asked Quin Snyder about how Johnson earned those minutes, and how he performed in them. “I thought he did well. The things that we’ve asked of our players in practice, he’s done them. Even though we haven’t had a ton of practice time, we’ve had some. He’s really embraced what we’ve tried to do on the defensive end, just with activity and ball pressure, and I think an understanding and he’s communicating on the court. There’s a lot of little things with understanding what we want on the floor. So as a coach, you feel comfortable giving him an opportunity.”
As a side note, the Jazz set up the timing on Johnson’s deal perfectly. He officially signed the deal on January 28th. That means, should he get a 2nd 10-day contract5, his contract would expire just before the trade deadline on February 19th. This would conceivably give the Jazz a roster spot to use in a possible trade in which they get more players than they give up, or to use if another team wants to give up an asset by dumping another player’s salary in the Jazz’s remaining salary cap space. If no such trade occurs, the Jazz could choose to retain Johnson for the rest of the season after the deadline without him missing a game. It’s smart roster management by an excellent Jazz front office.