The problem with being good for a while is that eventually people start expecting you to be good all the time. And when you’re not, people start to wonder what’s wrong with you and whether you were ever really good in the first place.
We’ve spent most of the season wondering what’s wrong with the Utah Jazz, whose steamroll through the second half of last season led to elevated expectations for this one that have been subverted by a sputtering sub-.500 start. The Spida-Man-led squad’s early-season struggles have turned the NBA pundit class into a nation of J. Jonah Jamesons looking at Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, and Co. through narrowed eyes and asking The Tough Questions. What’s going on beneath the surface in Salt Lake City? Who’s really under the mask? The Utah Jazz: Threat or menace?
Thirty-two games in, the Jazz remain one of the toughest teams in the league to draw a bead on. They’re 15-17, tied for 12th place in the 15-team West; that also puts them just three games out of sixth in what remains a rush-hour-traffic-jam of a conference. By NBA.com’s reckoning, Utah’s fielded the league’s seventh-worst offense and eighth-best defense, resulting in a net rating just a tick below zero for the season. So: average. And thus disappointing, given what we expected after a 29-6 close to last season, a playoff series win over Oklahoma City, and a breakout postseason performance by Mitchell, who finished second in Rookie of the Year balloting.
But when you strip away garbage-time minutes, as the site Cleaning the Glass does, Utah owns the NBA’s 12th-best efficiency differential. By that math—which we should consider, because point differential has proved a better indicator of overall team quality than straight win-loss record—the Jazz have performed more like an 18-win team, which would put them right in line with the Lakers and Blazers, who enter Thursday’s play as the West’s fourth and fifth seeds.
Maybe, then, Utah is less a glaring disappointment than a hard-luck squad that has been on the business end of some tough beats (3-5 in games where the score’s been within five points in the final five minutes) against the toughest schedule in the league to date.
“I’m expecting a huge jump in the win column for them,” Warriors star Kevin Durant said before Wednesday’s game in Utah.
There’s a sense that the Jazz are just trying to stay afloat in the midst of their brutal season-opening slate, hoping to survive wave after wave of playoff-caliber opposition while trapped out in deep water—20 of Utah’s first 32 games have come on the road—without sinking too far beneath the surface. Sometimes they drown, like when they managed just 89 points against a hardly dominant Magic defense in a dispiriting loss Saturday. Sometimes they tread water admirably, like when they came back twice from big deficits against the Rockets on Monday before eventually succumbing to the league’s leading scorer. And sometimes—though all too rarely this season—they start freaking swimming, like they did against the Warriors on Wednesday.
The Jazz beat Golden State 108-103 by grinding down the champs with 48 minutes of plays like this. They hewed to a smart defensive game plan, staying nailed to Klay Thompson’s off-ball marathon to keep his touches and shots down; he went 3-for-12 from the field, attempted only four 3-pointers, and missed them all.
Utah treated Draymond Green like the non-shooter he’s become and instead focused extra attention on Durant and Stephen Curry with the understanding that while you can’t stop them—32 for Steph, 30 for KD—you can try to force the ball away from them and toward the guys you want taking shots. It worked: Green, Andre Iguodala, Alfonzo McKinnie, Jonas Jerebko, and Shaun Livingston shot a combined 11-for-33 from the floor, muting the roar of the league’s no. 2 offense.
Rubio, Mitchell, and Dante Exum made the Warriors’ guards work all night, pressing up on their marks on the perimeter and working their asses off to stall dribble penetration. After harassing the ball handlers at the arc, they funneled the action inside, allowing the reigning Defensive Player of the Year to do what he does best. Gobert dominated the paint on both ends of the floor, taking advantage of his size and strength advantage against a Warriors team without DeMarcus Cousins and Damian Jones to bull his way to the front of the rim, block four shots, contest 20, and deter tons more.
“Guys did a remarkable job being physical,” Gobert told reporters after the game. “We respected the game plan.”
That elite defensive performance allowed the Jazz to withstand dismal shooting from Mitchell (17 points on 5-for-26 shooting and 2-for-11 from 3-point range alongside some wild drives into traffic and brain-cramp turnovers) and Rubio (0-for-8 from the floor, only three points in 31 minutes). Even with their top playmakers misfiring, the Jazz went shot-for-shot with the Dubs by moving the ball and their bodies well enough to create clean looks; they logged 335 passes, 30 assists, and 55 potential assists Wednesday, according to NBA.com’s stat tracking, all way up from their full-season averages.
Utah’s commitment to movement and floor spacing was most clear late in the third quarter, when Crowder, Joe Ingles, and recent addition Kyle Korver combined to make six consecutive 3-pointers that pushed the Jazz ahead leading into the fourth quarter. They opportunistically pushed tempo off forced misses and turnovers, attacking the paint, kicking the ball out, and swinging it to find open men. Shooters were active and aware, relocating to open spots to take advantage of lackadaisical Warriors defense. And Korver, imported to add a bankable long-range option to one of the league’s least accurate teams, did what he was brought back to Utah to do:
The Jazz made six straight 3-pointers late in the third quarter against Golden State last night. Good spacing, timely pushing off of misses and turnovers, off-ball activity, and smart extra passing sure can make an offense look better. (So can an in-rhythm Kyle Korver.) pic.twitter.com/NgcppWKl2e— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) December 20, 2018
None of this, on either end of the floor, was revolutionary, but all of it was remarkably effective; Mitchell had maybe the worst game of the season, and Utah still beat the full-strength-except-for-Boogie Warriors. This was a glimpse of who we thought the Jazz would be and who they still could be; remember that things didn’t turn around for Utah last season until after Rubio knocked down a game-winning 3 to beat a dominant Raptors team January 26.
The schedule will tilt from road to home and toward friendlier competition. Mitchell will find his shot, and others might too. (Of greater concern might be Mitchell discovering better shot selection.) Defense, once everybody’s playing it, can travel. It’s probably too much to expect 29-6, but the Jazz have what they need to go on a run, provided they use Wednesday’s proof-of-concept performance as both a blueprint and a launchpad.
“It’s just one win, so we can’t make too much of it,” Jazz forward Derrick Favors told reporters. “But it was good that we closed out. That was important for us.”
Not as important, though, as keeping that same energy in Portland on Friday and back home against the Thunder on Saturday. The Jazz can be a threat and a menace, even to the best teams in the league. They just need to stop keeping their identity a secret.