The Utah Jazz’s biggest skill doesn’t reside on the offensive or defensive end of the floor. They possess a complicated offensive system that’s tough for teams to game plan for. They possess the best defense in the NBA when Rudy Gobert is on the floor. And yet, their most impactful skill this entire season has been their resiliency.
The Jazz keep climbing their ways out of holes they’re not supposed to overcome. When Gordon Hayward and George Hill left last year’s highly successful team, Utah was supposed to be relegated back to the land of lottery ping pong balls. When the Jazz fell to 19-28 on the season, the Jazz were supposed to consider whether or not they should maybe tank a bit at some point in order to have better draft position. The Jazz never did either of those things, instead nearly securing the 3-seed and finding themselves with a solid 4-5 matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first-round of the playoffs.
In Wednesday’s 102-95 victory in Oklahoma City, the Jazz showed even more resilience. After carving out a 67-58 lead in the third quarter, Utah’s offense grew stagnant. The ball movement wasn’t there, screens weren’t crisp, and shots couldn’t fall when taken. Conversely, the Thunder found their rhythm pushing the ball back against the Jazz. The Thunder rattled off a 19-0 run to take a 10-point lead with 1:02 left in the third quarter. Still plenty of time for the Jazz to respond, but they needed a spark.
Throughout the game, Derrick Favors — Utah’s often forgot role player — kept outmuscling the Thunder for every opportunity. He grabbed offensive rebound after offensive rebound, like he had camped himself out at a turkey carving station in an All-You-Can-Eat buffet. He refused to let the Thunder end possessions for the Jazz’s offense. But that only carried the Jazz so much.
Ricky Rubio was on his way to a fantastic shooting night from deep, as he outplayed Russell Westbrook in a road playoff game. But Rubio didn’t seem to know how to lift the Jazz out of this funk during his 3.5 minutes of this roughly six-minute swoon. Joe Ingles remained bottled up with the ball in his hands, essentially settling for rare opportunities and being used as a decoy on the perimeter for much of the night.
The spark and the lead of the resilience the Jazz showed came from the rookie guard with the bad pinky toe. For much of the night, Donovan Mitchell failed to look like his typical explosive self. A breakaway opportunity that would normally be a highlight reel dunk was a basic Ingles-esque layup. Drives to the rim looked more grounded than ever and Mitchell just couldn’t seem to get off the ground at all. Utah needed him to break the 19-0 Thunder run and find some rhythm in this offense. He did just that.
Mitchell scored 12 of the Jazz’s next 14 points spanning the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth quarters. He played all but 36 seconds of the fourth quarter, scoring 13 of the team’s 26 points. He nearly matched the Thunder’s 16 fourth quarter points by himself as he kept adding to the lore of his incredible rookie season. For a good chunk of the fourth quarter, the Thunder put Paul George on him to try to eliminate a lot of the good opportunities the rookie guard could create.
Mitchell kept carving up the defense. On the other end of the floor, the Jazz clamped down on the Thunder’s offense, holding them to 6-of-27 in the fourth and 1-of-10 from deep.
Lose Hayward? No problem. Drop to nine games under .500 in January? Not an issue. Win 11 straight games and still find yourself 10th in the Western Conference standings? They’re fine. Give up a 19-0 run in the third quarter on the road of a playoff game as you look an 0-2 series deficit in the face? Doesn’t bother the Jazz at all.
Now the Jazz head back to Salt Lake City with home court advantage in the series and a chance to put pressure on a shaky Thunder team. Oklahoma City hasn’t managed to look consistent from one game to the next for most of this season. When they unravel, it’s hard to pull them back together because they have so many individual parts that haven’t figured out consistent team play, especially on the offensive end of the floor.
With the Jazz now looking to go up 2-1 in the series on Saturday, here are three keys to keep things rolling:
Key 1: Get Joe Ingles involved more
Ingles as a decoy worked a lot in Game 2, and he even found a couple of open 3-point looks he’d love to take again. Things just didn’t fall for Ingles but he still had a positive impact on the game. The Jazz can still extract a lot more out of his game than what they’ve been able to do so far. With Mitchell drawing more and more of the George assignment in this game, the Jazz can use that to their advantage. They shouldn’t take the ball out of Mitchell’s hands, especially when he’s rolling.
However, Utah can use those situations to flip things a bit. When George decides to take Mitchell, letting Ingles adjust and run some of the offense becomes a great decision. They can run him right into pick-and-roll initiation, and move Mitchell to the weak side wing. Once Ingles turns the corner on the PnR and the defense collapses from the weak side, he has a lethal decision to make against the Thunder.
Ingles can either lob it up to Favors or Gobert (whoever is headed toward the rim) or he can find Mitchell with a pass to the weak side wing. From there, Mitchell either has a spot-up 3-pointer, or he can attack the closeout from George or a help defender. Mitchell is incredible at attacking defenders closing out and it can lead to the Thunder defense collapsing on itself like a building being demolished.
Key 2: Quit looking for home run shots
From the 6:32 mark in the fourth to the 5:25 mark, the Jazz kept looking for these knockout blows in a tied game. Mitchell took a bad 3-point shot without rhythm. Rubio followed on the next position with a similar 3-point look. Mitchell came back again and tried another hero shot with 5:32 left and came up empty. All the while, the Jazz kept holding the Thunder to failed offensive possessions. These home run attempts by Utah ended up not hurting them because their defense responded.
That looks more like luck than anything, simply because of how they were able to escape without digging another hole for themselves. On the next possession, Mitchell attacked the basket for a shot inside. He converted it. Eventually, the Jazz got back into their rhythm and set up back-to-back 3-pointers for Rubio within the flow of kicking the ball to the perimeter for a shot in rhythm.
Utah can’t get lazy and keep looking for these video game attempts. Too many times, they broke away from offense and went with isolation attacks in the fourth. If they clean up those stagnant moments, the Thunder will struggle to keep up on both ends of the floor.
Key 3: Keep transferring responsibility from George to Melo
Paul George and Carmelo Anthony struggled quite a bit in this game. George hit a few ridiculous 3-point attempts when aggressively challenged on the perimeter. But overall, he finished 6-of-21 from the field and 4-of-12 from deep for 18 points. As George couldn’t create similar looks and production from Game 1, it led to more opportunities for Anthony to get his turn on the floor. His 5-of-13 shooting in Game 1 ballooned to 6-of-18 from the field in Game 2.
This is the distribution the Jazz want to see from the Thunder. This isn’t the Melo of New York or the Melo of Denver. This is OKC Melo where his shooting accuracy wanes quite a bit. Unless he’s scorching hot from the floor, the Jazz should want to live with the Thunder looking to Melo for offensive guidance. He can jab step to his hoodie’s heart’s desire and settle for jumpers over the outstretched arms of Favors or Jonas Jerebko.
With the Jazz getting Steven Adams into foul trouble early and often, it left guys like Jerami Grant and Anthony having to contend with Favors inside. Favors outworked everybody on the floor and wore down these options for the Thunder. Melo can’t fight with Favors underneath all night and then have the strength and conditioning to win these games. As long as they keep George from finding a rhythm, they should dare Anthony to capture the moment.