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Six Takeaways From Jazz-Celtics

In the first meeting between two wild cards of their respective conferences, both Utah and Boston offered clues as to what they could look like come playoff time

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

In a matchup between two of the most intriguing up-and-coming teams in the NBA, the Celtics soundly defeated the Jazz on Tuesday, 115–104. It was the most any team has scored on Utah all season, as Boston forced a normally stifling Jazz defense (which came into the game rated fourth in the league) to spread out by bombing away from the 3-point line, shooting 17-for-31 from beyond the arc. The Jazz are at their best when they can control tempo, keep teams in the half court, and set their defense, but they were unable to match the Celtics’ blistering pace or long-range shooting.

Part of the issue might have been fatigue; Utah had played in Brooklyn the night before and was on its third game in four days. The Jazz were also missing starting point guard George Hill, who sat out for the second consecutive game with concussion-like symptoms. Nevertheless, the way they lost on Tuesday could provide an intriguing blueprint for teams looking to crack their defense. The Celtics, meanwhile, seem to be clicking at the perfect time, and a soft schedule over the next month could provide some real separation between them and the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference.

Barring something truly miraculous, the two teams will face each other only one more time this season, but it’s still interesting to see how they stack up. They have near-identical records, with Utah at 22–14 and Boston at 21–14, and something to prove in the playoffs. The Gordon Hayward–led Jazz have never reached the postseason, while the Celtics have yet to win a series with Brad Stevens at the helm. Here are six takeaways from the game and what they could tell us about both teams’ futures:

1. Boston Neutralized Rudy Gobert

Gobert is one of the most intimidating defensive presences in the league, a praying mantis with a historic 7-foot-9 wingspan that covers up almost the entire paint. Discretion is the better part of valor when going up against a shot blocker like Gobert, and the Celtics rarely opted to challenge him at the rim, as Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley repeatedly lofted floaters from the free throw line over the top of his outstretched arms. Gobert had eight points, 13 rebounds, and only one block on Tuesday; he didn’t have a huge impact on the game, finishing a minus-18.

All four of the Celtics big men who played — Al Horford, Amir Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, and Jonas Jerebko — are comfortable stretching the floor, and they forced Gobert to choose between protecting the paint and honoring them on the perimeter. The Celtics put Gobert in a lot of pick-and-pop situations, trying to use his instincts against him. Time and time again, Thomas used a ball screen to get into the lane, attracted a crowd, and then kicked it out to an open shooter. Watch what happens to Gobert in this sequence:

A spread pick-and-roll team like Boston that can shoot the ball from all five positions can somewhat neutralize Utah’s defense, which is built around funneling ball handlers into its shot blockers. Force the Jazz big men to extend out on defense and it doesn’t matter how good they are at protecting the rim. Utah likes to drop its big men back on the pick-and-roll in order to concede the open midrange shot, but the increasing prominence of lethal off-the-dribble shooters like Thomas, Steph Curry, and Damian Lillard makes that tried-and-true strategy riskier. Their nearly limitless shooting range means screens can be set so far behind the arc that Utah is conceding 3s instead of long 2s. How far out on the perimeter can Gobert play on defense and still be comfortable? There’s no reason to take him out of the paint in the regular season, but the Jazz might not have a choice in the playoffs.

2. Isaiah Thomas Can Pass the Ball, Too

It has been a pretty good week for Thomas. First, he exploded for a career-high 52 points against the Heat on Friday. Then, in case his zero assists against Miami made anyone question his ability to distribute the ball, he handed out a career-high 15 assists against the Jazz. There’s pretty much nothing Thomas can’t do on the offensive side of the ball, and his ability to orchestrate the Celtics attack was the difference in the game Tuesday. He looked to push the ball at every opportunity, beating the Jazz big men down the floor and burning them in the pick-and-roll when they were in the half court.

The fascinating part about the two-man game is that it often winds up with the biggest player on the floor (Gobert) guarding the smallest player (Thomas). From there, it’s a matter of playing the angles. The guard tries to create enough space to either get his shot off or open up a passing lane, while the big man tries to cut off dribble penetration and contest the shot. There are few big men in the league better at doing that than Gobert, but Thomas was toying with him for most of the night. This is just beautiful basketball:

The competition at point guard in the Eastern Conference is fierce, with Kyle Lowry, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, and John Wall all jockeying for a spot on the All-Star team, but Thomas may have locked up a place with his play over the past week.

3. You Have to Attack Thomas on Defense

Thomas is too good on offense to let him take the night off on defense, and one of the only ways to stop a scorer of his caliber is to get into his legs on the other side of the ball. Unfortunately for the Jazz, with Hill out they had to turn to Shelvin Mack and Raul Neto at the point guard position. While Mack can charitably be described as a score-first guard, the Celtics were more than happy to let him look for his own offense, and he finished the game with eight points on 3-of-10 shooting. Stevens didn’t show much respect for Mack’s game, which is funny given that he coached him at Butler.

If Hill were playing, he could have taken the 5-foot-9 Thomas into the post and used his 6-foot-3 frame to shoot over the top of him. The Jazz are so big on the perimeter that there’s no one else Thomas could have been switched onto, as he would have been an even bigger mismatch against the 6-foot-8 Rodney Hood or the 6-foot-8 Hayward. But with Mack and Neto serving as weak links in the lineups for most of the night, there were plenty of places against Utah where Stevens could hide Thomas on defense and not worry about the outcome. The question for Boston is what happens when those spots disappear as the Celtics start to play against elite teams.

The constant churn of games in the regular season means teams don’t have as much time as they’d like to prepare for matchups. If the Jazz had that luxury, though, they would have tried to emphasize their size advantage on the perimeter. Quin Snyder tried Hood on Thomas for a few minutes in the second quarter, and a supersized lineup of Hayward as the primary ball handler, Hood, and Joe Johnson as the third perimeter player would have made life impossible for Thomas. Teams like Cleveland and Toronto will likely try to similarly upsize if they wind up facing Boston in the playoffs.

4. Boston Shrunk the Floor Against Utah

The Celtics had a pretty clear defensive strategy against the Jazz: They were going to make Utah’s power forwards beat them from the perimeter or force them to make plays in congested spaces in the lane. Utah likes to play two traditional big men for most of the game, starting two centers together in Gobert and Derrick Favors and then bringing in Trey Lyles and Boris Diaw off the bench. Lyles and Diaw were both given license to shoot from the outside. Lyles missed two open 3s in six minutes in the first half and didn’t come back in, while Diaw went 3-for-3 from beyond the arc and scored 15 points in 15 minutes.

Favors had an impressive game on the stat sheet, with 12 points, six rebounds, and seven assists on 5-for-10 shooting in 29 minutes, but those were exactly the plays the Celtics were comfortable giving up. He’s not a threat from the 3-point line, so he has to step into 15-to-20-foot shots, meaning the Jazz were effectively trading 3s for 2s for most of the night. With Boston packing the paint against Utah’s big lineups, there was just no room in the paint for anyone on the Jazz to maneuver. Check out the spacing on this pick-and-roll that results in Amir Johnson packing Gobert:

After falling behind 15 points a few minutes into the fourth quarter, the Jazz got back in the game by going small, completing a 7–0 run with four perimeter players around Favors. Utah played four-out, alternating between Favors and Gobert as the lone interior player on the floor for the rest of the game. How much small ball the Jazz incorporate into their game plan will be an intriguing story line to watch all season, especially once Snyder finally has a full complement of players at his disposal.

5. Joe Johnson Is Still Putting in Work

Joe Johnson is averaging only 8.7 points a game this season, his lowest total since his rookie season, but he still knows how to put the ball in the basket. He had 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting on Tuesday, with 10 of those coming in a three-minute, fourth-quarter stretch that kept the Jazz in the game. There’s nothing particularly interesting about a 6-foot-7 guard methodically dribbling into jumpers and floaters, but it is brutally effective, which is why he has been able to extend his career deep into his 30s.

The great irony of Johnson’s career is that he’s the consummate blue-collar player, even though he’s known mostly for cashing checks. By the time his two-year contract with the Jazz is up, he will have cleared more than $220 million in the NBA. However, he’s more than earning his money in Utah, and he’s exactly the type of dependable, veteran shooter the Jazz need coming off their bench. Don’t be surprised if he winds up winning a game or two for them in the playoffs.

6. Jae Crowder Didn’t Preesh the Boston Crowd Cheering Hayward

The real fun came in his mentions, which NESN captured for posterity before he deleted them.

Boston has been widely linked as a potential destination for Hayward (who will likely opt out of his contract to become a free agent in the offseason) for years because of his connection to Stevens from their days at Butler. And if the Celtics did sign Hayward, guess who would probably be losing his starting spot at small forward.