Three weeks ago, it looked like the Utah Jazz were dead in the water. They’d just lost four of five to drop below .500 in their first season without longtime offensive focal point Gordon Hayward, and they’d also just lost defensive linchpin Rudy Gobert to a right knee bone bruise that was expected to keep their best player out of the lineup for at least a month. How, exactly, would a Jazz team that had been nightmarish offensively early in the season, and seemed like it would have to depend primarily on a smothering defense to eke out wins, survive without its shot-swatting star center?
The answer, evidently: become one of the NBA’s most explosive offensive teams. Duh.
The Jazz annihilated the Washington Wizards on Monday night, burying the visitors beneath a trio of first-half runs — a 10-0 spurt late in the first quarter, a 15-2 burst midway through the second, another 10-2 rush in the closing minutes of the second — that left the JohnWall-less Wiz flat on their backs and staring up at the lights and a 34-point halftime deficit. Things would only get worse from there, as the Jazz poured it on after the break, repeatedly punting a very dead horse on their way — despite a fourth quarter that featured no points by any Utah starter — to a 47-point destruction that stands as the second-worst defeat in Washington franchise history.
A lot of things have to happen to create a score this lopsided. The Wizards clearly did more than their fair share to earn the beatdown, as detailed well (and, one would imagine, painfully) by Adam Rubin at Truth About It. But as much as the final score tells us about the Wizards’ defensive woes and struggles to consistently generate good looks with Wall on the mend, the gleeful and unrepentant stomping also points out just how viciously the Jazz have been exploiting opposing defenses over the past few weeks.
Jazz have scored 60 pts in the 1st half in
3 of the last 5
4 of the last 8
5 of the last 10
6 of the last 12 games
— David Locke (@Lockedonsports) December 5, 2017
Since Nov. 22, nobody in the NBA has scored more efficiently or explosively than the Utah freakin’ Jazz. Not the streaking Cavs. Not the rampaging Rockets. Not the defending NBA champion Warriors. Utah’s head-and-shoulders above them all, averaging a blistering 123.4 points per 100 possessions over that span, a full 7.2 points-per-100 more than second-place Cleveland; the distance between No. 1 and No. 2 is about the same as the distance between No. 2 and No. 9 (the Milwaukee Bucks, at 108.9-per-100).
Utah’s sharing the ball, leading the league by a mile in passes per game and secondary assists during this stretch, while trailing only the Warriors in nightly direct helpers. Quin Snyder’s club is also taking care of the rock, leading the league in assist-to-turnover ratio and ranking second in turnover percentage (the share of team possessions on which a member of the Jazz coughs the ball up).
“I think that’s the thing that’s improved the most,” said Gobert after making his return to the lineup on Monday, scoring four points with 10 rebounds, three assists, two blocks and a steal in 21 minutes of action, according to Kyle Goon of the Salt Lake Tribune. “That’s the team we want to be. We want to be unselfish, and the team you don’t know who is going to score.”
Eight different Utah players are averaging at least eight points per game during the red-hot run. Eleven are shooting at least 45 percent from the field; nine are over 35 percent from 3-point range. Utah’s canning 46 percent of its long-distance looks as a team over the last six games, thanks in part to drive-and-kick, swing-swing movement that’s led to a host of open looks.
Thirty of Utah’s 32.3 nightly 3-point looks have come with no defender within four feet of the shooter, according Second Spectrum’s player tracking, an uptick over 26-of-28.3 before Gobert’s injury. Four extra open or wide-open 3s a game can make a whole lot of difference in how wide those driving lanes are, how good a shooter the spot-up target is, and how many points you wring out of every possession.
According to Jazz radio voice David Locke, Snyder calls the practice of getting into the paint off dribble penetration, collapsing the defense, kicking it out and swinging it to get new opportunities to attack the paint “putting an opponent in the blender.” Utah’s been doing that with gusto, averaging a shade under 48 points per game in the paint during this winning streak — and notching 50 against Washington — despite lacking a dominant interior scorer by spreading the floor and giving some gifted guards a chance to get working downhill.
One, in particular, has opened quite a few eyes.
We knew coming out of Summer League that Donovan Mitchell would be fun to watch. We saw in the first month of the season that he was going to get plenty of chances to expand his offensive game on a Jazz team starved for shot creators and finishers. What we’ve seen more and more of late is that Mitchell isn’t just made for highlight reels, but that — in the absence of Hayward, Gobert, top scorer Rodney Hood and premier finisher Joe Johnson — he might have the goods to be a legit top-flight scorer.
During Utah’s winning streak, Mitchell’s averaging 21.7 points in 30.8 minutes per game. He’s taking more than 15 shots a night, the bulk of them coming either directly at the front of the rim or from beyond the arc, and he’s drilling them, shooting just under 49 percent from the floor, 48 percent from deep (on 7.7 attempts a game!) and 78 percent from the foul line over the last six games.
The Louisville product is confidently stepping into catch-and-shoot looks created off Utah’s excellent ball movement. More enticingly, he’s also shooting a healthy 40.9 percent on pull-up triples during the Jazz streak, giving Snyder the kind of weapon that can salvage a busted set, force defenses to extend coverage higher out on the floor for fear of giving up a quick look off the bounce, and create more openings for quicksilver drives through cracks that can get that blender cranked up and whirring.
Utah’s system works to create advantages through ball and player movement, through clever design and pristine execution. Mitchell looks more with each passing day like he can create them just by being a freaking beast when he’s in attack mode off the bounce or on the break.
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) December 5, 2017
You never like to lose a player of Gobert’s caliber. But the two-big combo of Gobert and Derrick Favors began the season by breaking with several years of strong play and being a net negative in the early going; Utah was -25 in 237 Gobert-Favors minutes before Gobert’s injury. Losing Gobert allowed Snyder to slide Favors from power forward to center, move versatile stretch reserve Jonas Jerebko into the starting lineup, and set the Jazz up to play more four-out basketball with more shooters, ball-movers and playmakers spread around the 3-point arc.
The Gobert injury was such a blessing – it made Quinn realize they could play a more modern uptempo / spread game and have success. https://t.co/eJgzc8dcmV
— Haralabos Voulgaris (@haralabob) December 5, 2017
Oddly, the overall tempo hasn’t picked up — Utah has actually played slower since Gobert’s injury, averaging 95.5 possessions per 48 minutes, than before he went down, with 98.77 possessions-per-48. (There’s an argument to be made that the slowdown style ought to help Mitchell’s Rookie of the Year candidacy, provided voters can see their way to looking at pace-adjusted production.) Nor has the reshuffled starting lineup been a juggernaut — the fivesome of Favors, Jerebko, Joe Ingles, Mitchell and Ricky Rubio has actually been outscored by two points in 91 total minutes during the winning streak. The style, though, appears to be paying real dividends.
Utah’s generating more corner 3s with the spread-out, ball-movement-friendly looks while still defending at an elite level thanks to tons of length and lateral quickness among its wings — rookies Mitchell and Royce O’Neale, veterans Joe Ingles, Jerebko and Thabo Sefolosha — and has been feasting on opponents with mix-and-match second units that have turned in some scorching numbers over the past few weeks, thanks in part to stellar play from reserve scorer Alec Burks.
After missing the bulk of the last three years with a variety of injuries, the 26-year-old guard has found his footing of late, turning in three straight 20-plus-point games, including 27 points in 27 minutes against Washington. He looks confident, quick and decisive, giving Snyder another talented downhill driver and finisher alongside Mitchell, and another player capable of finding his own shot on a team that looks to be finding a new identity after Hayward’s departure.
Alec Burks is averaging 32 PTS per 36 minutes in his last three games. He's averaging 26.8 PTS per 36 minutes in his last six… https://t.co/QpHZYgYtsT
— Andy Bailey (@AndrewDBailey) December 5, 2017
“I think [Burks is] just being efficient,” Snyder said after Monday’s game. “His finishing is really, really good right now. He’s had stretches where he’s shot the ball well, but the biggest thing really when you watch him defend, there’s just the real pride that’s he’s got right now on the defensive end. When he’s focused on that, he’s a natural offensive player.”
Whether everything keeps looking natural for Utah remains to be seen.
The Jazz have gotten rolling against the rancid Chicago Bulls, a Milwaukee Bucks team going through some, um, differences of opinion related to its defensive strategy, the Denver Nuggets without Paul Millsap, the unraveling Los Angeles Clippers, a New Orleans Pelicans side that lost Anthony Davis to a groin injury at the start of the fourth quarter, and the Wall-less Wizards. None of that is their fault — you can only play who’s in front of you, and Utah’s been without important pieces, too — but the Jazz are about to walk into a back-to-back on the road against the Oklahoma City Thunder, a Thursday night meeting with the roaring Rockets, and a six-game road trip. As the schedule turns, Snyder will begin the process of figuring out how to marry the free-and-easy spaced-out approach that’s been carrying the Jazz with the return of Gobert and without derailing what’s been working so well for Favors, who’s averaging 17 points, 8.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.2 steals and one block in 29.5 minutes per game during the winning streak. There are caveats.
That doesn’t mean there’s not plenty to love, though. Mitchell looks like the real deal. Favors and Burks are playing their best ball in years. The small forward rotation’s been great, Ekpe Udoh’s been a helpful defensive presence behind Favors, and everybody’s buying what Snyder’s selling. The Jazz have been downright joyful over the past few weeks, which isn’t what anybody expected amid the doom-and-gloom of Gobert’s injury.
“I’ve never been a part of something like this,” Favors said after Monday’s win, according to Tony Jones of the Salt Lake Tribune. “I’ve been on teams that have won a few then lost a few. But this is something I haven’t experienced.”
And now, we find out if they can keep one of the NBA’s best stories going.
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