Thunder Defense Too Much in Jazz 89 – 103 Loss

December 23rd, 2017 | by Clint Johnson

Donovan Mitchell (45) tried his best to hold at bay the Oklahoma City Thunder by scoring a game-high 29 points. It wasn’t enough. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Story of the Game

It isn’t often a team can claim to have played well in a fourteen point home loss, but after tonight’s 89 – 103 loss the Oklahoma City Thunder the Jazz can say that. For what it’s worth.

In what is becoming typical of games against the Thunder, this was a tough–and sometimes chippy–contest, with several confrontations between players. But unlike earlier this week in Oklahoma City, the Jazz displayed mental toughness and never let the Thunder go on a knockout run. Utah ended the night out-shooting their opponent 46 percent to 44 percent and, in an uncommon development that speaks to how much force Utah played with offensively, actually took more free throw attempts (20) than the Thunder (16).

But Oklahoma City used excellent defense and 15 massive offensive rebounds to grind down Utah, taking 16 more shots than the Jazz. While Utah kept fighting back the pressure was relentless as seen by the Jazz’s inability to create a breakout scoring quarter. Utah’s offense managed 22 points in the first quarter, 21 in the second, another 21 in the third, and then finally 25 in a fourth where they allowed the Thunder to score 27.

But even burdened by the discrepancy on the offensive glass and a 20 to seven disadvantage on points of off turnovers, Utah played well enough they just might have won this game if not for the three point shooting. The Jazz–the third best shooting team in the league from long range–made only six of their 26 three-point attempts (23 percent), despite a number of those misses being wide open. Oklahoma City–the 22nd ranked three point shooting team–made 12 of 29 attempts (41 percent).

If Utah shoots 40 percent on these shots, which they’ve done in 16 games this season, this game goes down to the wire even with the Thunder’s 16 extra shot attempts.

Aside from an exhausted and dispirited blowout in Oklahoma City earlier this week, the Jazz have actually played good basketball recently. But when you play the Celtics, Cavaliers, Rockets, Spurs, and Thunder twice, good basketball gets you two wins and four losses.

While Utah’s next six games are far from easy (including a road tilt against the Warriors before closing out 2017 with the Cavaliers at home), they do get the Heat, Pelicans, and Nuggets twice. Those teams are in Utah’s tier in terms of talent. If the Jazz can play about as well as they have during this last brutal stretch, it might result in far more wins in the future than it has the recent past.

Stars of the Game

Superstar: Donovan Mitchell

After missing two games due to injury, the first in his basketball career, Mitchell picked up right where he left off, scoring 29 points and tossing in five rebounds, as well as an assist, a steal, and a block while once again leading the team in minutes with 37. But the young man simply shows no limit to his abundance of awesome. Since the day he was drafted, Utah’s brain trust has noted how quickly Mitchell learns and applies that learning. Well, the Thunder’s Andre Roberson, one of the NBA’s better and longer perimeter defenders, gave Mitchell serious problems earlier this month. This started a trend of teams assigning taller, longer defenders to the rookie. Such defenders take away Mitchell’s ability to take pull up jumpers, including from three, which is a major part of his breakout season. Tonight, Mitchell compensated by taking quality defenders like Roberson or Paul George off the dribble and finishing inside the three point line, where he shot 12 of 161. Mitchell may end up making more threes than any rookie in history and tonight he did a full on Dwyane Wade impression. With experience, this guy just might be unguardable.

Secondary Star: None

Derrick Favors (11 points, 8 rebounds, an assist, and a block) is the most likely candidate but just didn’t have enough of an impact, particularly late in the game, when Steven Adams’s physicality stopped any chance for a late Jazz run with offensive rebounds.

Secret Star: Thabo Sefolosha

Sefolosha managed to be one of only three Jazz players (with Mitchell and Favors) to score in double figures and was Utah’s only significant contributor to earn a positive plus-minus on the night (plus-five).

Stats of the Game

13 – Margin by which the Jazz were outscored with George on the floor. He was awesome on both ends of the floor, combining 26 points on 17 shots (including four made threes) with six steals and a pair of blocks. The more the Thunder feature Russell Westbrook (27 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists, a steal, and a block) and George–and get Carmelo Anthony (six of 18 for 16 points) to accept a carefully defined role–the better off they’ll be.

14 – Offensive rebounds by Oklahoma City’s starters: Adams’s six, George’s three, Westbrook and Roberson each grabbed two, and Anthony chipped in one.

14 – Utah’s scoring advantage in the paint (42 to 32) and at the free throw line (17 makes to 13). The team really did play hard and well.

21 percent – Rodney Hood’s field goal percentage on his three of 14 night. He’s now shot under 30 percent five times this season, and he took an average of 15 shots in those games. That’s 20 percent of his season. No team with playoff aspirations can have a leading scorer who is that inefficient that often while going to the free throw line less than three times a contest.

45 – Shots by Utah’s guards (Mitchell’s 16, Hood’s 14, Rubio’s 10, and Burks’s five). That’s 63 percent of the team’s shots.

Sundries

  • Two games ago, Joe Johnson was shooting less than eight percent from three on the season. He made two threes against the Spurs and another two tonight with no misses. He’s now up to 14 percent. Karma says he should stay hot.
  • When Johnson first returned from injury, Quin Snyder placed him in the starting lineup over Jonus Jerebko and the offense imploded. Since moving Johnson back to the bench, the lineups with both Jerebko and Johnson have worked much better. I like Jerebko with Favors because of his energy and enthusiasm. Johnson, on the other hand, stops the ball more than any player on Utah’s roster and doesn’t have the same energy, which pairs well with the defensive intensity and enthusiasm (and offensive limitations) of an Ekpe Udoh or, once he’s healthy, Rudy Gobert.
  • The Thunder lead the league in steals per game for good reason. Their perimeter defense is as good as any team in the NBA because of the quality athletes they deploy there. Roberson and George are all-league caliber defenders with length, athleticism, focus, and toughness. The Thunder’s ball denial scheme is perfectly designed to bog down Snyder’s motion offense, which relies heavily on numerous passes including frequent movement  from one side of the court to the other. Roberson and George blanketed Mitchell and Ingles tonight, as they can most opponents. Add in Westbrook’s super-elite athleticism and intensity and Steven Adams’s ogreish intimidation in the paint and you have a truly tough NBA defense.
  • Ricky Rubio is a good basketball player. He rebounds the ball well and purposefully, uses his mind to be really disruptive on defense, and is a great teammate profuse with praise and celebration of his teammates. But he makes the Jazz less competitive when he’s on the court because his presence allows defenses to abort Snyder’s motion offense before it starts. It couldn’t be more obvious in Utah’s struggles scoring to start games. Tonight, Rubio played just over five minutes to start the game. In that time, Rubio took six of the team’s eight shots. Nearly every offensive problem he posses is clear in his shot chart for this span, which is posted below: 1) Missed shots at the rim. Rubio is shooting 49 percent in the restricted area this season. 2) Long pull up jumpers. He took three all from the right elbow because defenses sag deep under screens on him. No help defenders come, which leaves no assist opportunities. And because he actually feels more confident with a long pull up jumper than finishing at the rim, that’s the shot he takes. No NBA offense is meant to generate lots of pull up 17 to 22 footers, which is what Rubio gets in the pick and roll. 3) With Rubio unable to create offense with the ball in his hands (as in the one for five shots already addressed), the only option is to space him out beyond the three point line as a shooter. But his sixth shot shows the problem with that: teams leave him wide open and he misses. He’s getting nearly three WIDE OPEN threes per game2 and is making only 28 percent of those shots! The overall effect is he can’t get shots for anyone else or make nearly enough of the shots the defense gives him.

(NBA.com)

  • Compare that shot chart to Utah’s shot chart in the rest of the quarter without Rubio: Joe Ingles getting four shots, two at the rim and two corner threes; a Favors dunk; Mitchell getting two shots at the rim and one (made) pull up 10 footer; an elbow jumper and three attempt from Hood; a corner three for Johnson; two shots at the rim for Alec Burks. In the same quarter against the same opponent and with many of the same players on the floor, the shots the offense creates is vastly different. Every one of these is a desirable shot taken by a player Snyder wants taking that particular shot, with the possible exception of Mitchell’s midrange pull up. Six players get shots, all shots Utah wants these players taking. With Rubio on the court, all too often the offense is so gummed up he ends up taking a poor percentage shot because it’s the only option the offense can muster.

(NBA.com)

It’s increasingly looking like the Jazz’s chance at a playoff spot will be earned, or not, at the expense of the Nuggets, Blazers, or Pelicans. With two games against Denver this week, they can go a long way to erasing the negative impact of this devastating December by climbing back into reach of division foes. Their first shot will be Tuesday in Denver.

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.
Clint Johnson

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2 Comments

  1. John Jenkins says:

    Nice analysis of Rubio and his problems. He really struggles close and outside of 15 feet. Me needs to take more drives of of passes at the 3 line either take the short jumper or get the ball to others. Wish the rest of the Jazz would attack rebounds like he does evenout of his area. The number of basketball that just fall to the ground is atrocious. Turnovers and lack of work on the boards really killed the Jazz. Yes the 3 pt line was no gift this game but seriously?

    • Clint Johnson says:

      I completely agree about Rubio pursuing rebounds. It’s a major strength of his and more Jazz players need that, particularly with Gobert out. Favors is diligent at boxing out, but against a guy like Adams he often works as hard as he can simply to wall Adams away from a rebound. It’s up to other players to actually corral it, and too often it was guys like George or Westbrook outworking Jazz players in those situations.

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