That the Jazz gave up 29 points in 29 minutes to Kyrie Irving in a 130-96 loss on Tuesday isn’t a big deal by itself. Kyrie is one of the most difficult covers in the NBA when locked in, and the Nets desperately needed a win in their first game without Kevin Durant, who is out for the next week due to COVID protocols. The concern for Utah is just how easy it was for Kyrie. It looked a lot like when Jamal Murray scorched the Jazz in last season’s playoffs. Utah still doesn’t have an answer for scoring guards, nor does it have enough versatile players to adjust when Plan A isn’t working.
The primary perimeter defender in the Jazz’s starting lineup is Royce O’Neale, a 3-and-D wing with the frame (6-foot-4 and 226 pounds) to guard bigger players. O’Neale is a great story, an undrafted free agent who spent two seasons playing in Europe before making the Jazz roster in 2017. He’s unselfish and understands his role in Utah: sacrificing his body, moving the ball, and knocking down open shots (46.2 percent from 3 on 3.7 attempts per game).
But O’Neale is not an elite athlete with the ability to suffocate smaller guards like Kyrie and Murray off the dribble. He is a sound positional defender who rarely makes mistakes in Quin Snyder’s defensive system. But there are times when that just isn’t enough. Kyrie got whatever he wanted against O’Neale at all three levels on Tuesday:
There is no obvious adjustment for the Jazz. Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell are solid defenders, but both are only 6-foot-1. The ideal Kyrie defender would be a bigger wing with the quickness and length to contest his shot. That’s not Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, or Jordan Clarkson, either. While Utah has one of the deepest collections of perimeter players in the league, there’s not a lot of versatility among them. They are all better when sticking to the one or two things they do best in the Jazz’s system.
The pieces fit really well when everything is clicking. Utah starts four shooters around a dominant roll man in Rudy Gobert. Conley is the playmaker, Mitchell is the scorer, O’Neale is the defender, and Bogdanovic is the marksman. They also have one of the strongest benches in the league, with Clarkson as the sixth man, Ingles as a point forward, and Derrick Favors as the backup center. Georges Niang as a backup forward is their weakest link, but he’s the last man in their rotation. There are nights when the Jazz look like world-beaters because everyone stars in their role. No one is being asked to do anything they can’t do at a high level.
The downside is that it takes just one player to derail the whole operation. On a night like Tuesday, when O’Neale can’t handle his defensive assignment, there’s no one else to turn to. Instead, he just gets roasted possession after possession. Snyder might as well be giving him a horse and asking him to charge a trench like he’s a general in World War I. The Jazz eventually tried a zone, a tough strategy against a team that can shoot as well as Brooklyn. That same lack of options is why Murray averaged 31.6 points per game on 53.3 percent shooting in Denver’s first-round win over Utah, including scoring 142 points combined in Game 4 through Game 6.
The Jazz signed Shaquille Harrison to be a change-of-pace defender off their bench, but he’s a career 29.3 percent 3-point shooter who would shrink the floor. The best answer is Mitchell, who ultimately took the assignment on Murray toward the end of their playoff series. He has the physical tools to defend smaller guards, particularly when it comes to getting over screens in the pick-and-roll. Unlike O’Neale, Mitchell can play like Eric Bledsoe, who might have been the best player in the league in that role in Milwaukee. That’s just a lot to ask of someone who is also the team’s leading scorer.
There also needs to be a Plan B. Just look at what happened to Bledsoe and the Bucks over the past few postseasons. There are times when the opposing big man will set a good screen and the guard will get open. That’s when Gobert has to extend out on the perimeter and contest the shot himself. You can’t just give elite guards open jumpers in the playoffs.
That goes back to Utah’s lack of versatility. The Jazz don’t have the frontcourt players to switch screens, removing an important defensive counter from their playbook. Gobert is more effective in the paint. So are Favors and Udoka Azubuike, the no. 27 pick in this year’s draft. The Jazz doubled down on what they do well when building their roster instead of trying to do as many different things as possible, making them vulnerable to the wrong types of matchups in the playoffs.
The pattern is clear going back to the beginning of the Gobert era. They lost to the Warriors in 2017, the Rockets in 2018 and 2019, and the Nuggets in 2020. That’s Steph Curry, James Harden, and Jamal Murray. All three can shoot off the dribble from every part of the floor. What Kyrie did to the Jazz on Tuesday shows that they still don’t have an answer for that.