Three thoughts on Utah Jazz’s 121-115 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.
This is the longest I’ve stared at a blank page after a match. I’ve been doing the Triple Team since 2013-14, and this is the longest.
They did it again. They lost just like in Game 6. In the same building, against the same team. They had a 25-point lead over the Clippers early in the third quarter. Then, in a stunning, almost guillotine-like fashion, they lost it. Again.
This time, there was the added downside of having a 16-point lead to lose in the fourth quarter. This time, there were perhaps even more embarrassing individual moments: Donovan Mitchell’s time-out conversation when they weren’t accompanied by a time-out chief. This time they lost the lead when the Clippers had Isaiah Hartenstein on the road. Isaiah Hartenstein defeated them!
To get some inspiration on what to write this time, I decided to look up what I wrote last time.
Last time I wrote about how their loss reflected a strong team with an Achilles heel: their defense against small formations. The Clippers figured out in Game 6 that they could take the Jazz apart and attack the Jazz’s poor defenders over and over, turning the 25-point lead mountain into a molehill facing a tank.
Then I could make it logical. Last time it was a legitimate weakness, a basketball Xs and Os foul. The team was unable to defend because they had no perimeter defenders, and even their adequate perimeter defenders were injured, hampering their defensive mobility. They went out and signed and traded for exactly no real answers to that problem, which I was seriously concerned about going into this season, but oh well.
This wasn’t even that. The Clippers were playing big all the time! This was about the Jazz who literally forgot the principles of basketball. They had trouble dribbling. They didn’t come back. They made clear violations. They mentioned timeouts they didn’t have. They led 25 in an NBA game and then looked like a high school basketball team.
At one point, with about a minute to go, with the Jazz only two behind, Rudy Gobert started shaking his head, even while he was screening an incoming play. He couldn’t believe it had happened again. The team clearly still had a chance! But he was upset. Everyone was like that.
Heck, it started earlier than that, didn’t it? Once that lead dropped from 25, as soon as it fell even just a little bit in the fourth, it seemed a fait accompli that the Jazz would lose another lead. They were leading by 10 in the middle of the fourth quarter, and I wouldn’t have taken an even money bet that the Jazz would win the game. The Jazz were actors who played their part in a show they were sure to blow up again. The Washington Generals, but on TNT.
There are still games to go in this Jazz season, and there will likely be another postseason. The players say there is still time to change the team mentality, to learn how to fight, to learn how to play basketball well, even in difficult times.
Nobody believes them. They’ve said it too many times. They have to say it because you can’t be a well-paid professional basketball player and recognize that your competitive spirit is gone and hope that contracts will move forward, but the words are meaningless.
Actions rather than words. Another collapse like this, this Tinseltown nightmare, speaks volumes.
2. What Rudy Gobert said after the match
While Rudy Gobert has traditionally not been great at the end of these matches (and just to be clear, I’m not calling him out, but he’s definitely part of the problem), he’s definitely doing well in the post-match press conferences.
What goes through your mind when you lose a twenty-five point lead?
Simply: again. Again and again. And in the same way. There’s a lot of things to look at, I missed five free throws, some bad calls, but it’s the essence of the way we play, I think, that bites us every time. I think we all feel it when it happens. It’s like we just let it go. We just have to keep playing the right way for 48 minutes, the same way.
How come when teams level up – athletic teams that can switch and get to you – why is it that when they level up, you guys can’t figure out a way to launch your attack with force?
We are disconnected. We stop playing. We lose the values of this team moving the ball. And that really affects our defense. It’s like everything flows, and then it flows in the wrong direction and we become more and more disconnected. And then the other team feels like they’re doing something right, they know how to get us to that point, they know how to get us there. When you lose momentum, you give them fast break points and then offensive rebounds, they get a second chance, they feel like nothing can happen to them.
Nobody touches anybody. We don’t get our hands dirty. We never get our hands dirty. We’re a really good basketball team, but I wake up every night, and guys literally beat me up every night, like they should. It’s basketball, it’s a physical game. But we have to get to the point where we do the same with the other team. But teams don’t really expect that from us. We are a very good basketball team, I think we have great basketball players on both sides. We just have to find a way to get that mindset, to get things done more and do it 48 minutes, and do it some more. And when the going gets tough, we have to do it even more.
When the going gets tough, we do the opposite. We are disconnected and that affects our defenses. I think it’ll be fine, but at some point it’s got to hurt so much that we just f— say it, we’ve got nothing to lose. We just have to get that mentality.
Did you say we should get our hands dirty?
It’s part of the game, but you don’t win without getting – you can be as good as you want, but it’s mental. And it starts with me. When guys come up to me and score, it affects the whole team. And if I give up an offensive rebound or something like that – as one of the leaders of this team, we have to set the tone as leaders, and then guys are going to ride with us. But it starts with us being tougher.
And we do – we start the game the right way, we play the right way, we’re at 20, and this year it’s happened many times. We’re at 20 at the end of the third, or 15, and then it’s disconnected. It’s like something happens where we don’t move the ball anymore, we give up offensive rebounds, we give up transition points and we give teams life that shouldn’t have a life. If we want to be a championship team, we have to figure it out, but it has to come from all of us.
Does it hurt because it’s 25 points again, because it’s the Clippers?
I mean, it hurts. It hurts to be honest. I can’t speak for everyone, but it hurts for me. I’d hit a wall, but what’s that going to do? Nothing. So it hurts, but we have to learn. The only way we can go is forward. And at some point, when it happens, there’s a reason. It’s almost better that we lose rather than win by one or two. It’s like, how often? When are we going to learn and fix those things. We still have seven or eight games to go and we have to use that to learn how to play the same way for 48 minutes. And at the end of the game, we have to level up, increase our physicality, and get our hands dirty when it really matters. Because teams roll up their sleeves, I can tell you that.
It’s a few shots – Gobert isn’t the one controlling the ball movement, it’s guards Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson – but it’s also a certain amount of responsibility. But he’s absolutely right: When the chips on his and teams get physical, the Jazz withers. In Gobert’s parlance, they don’t get their hands dirty. They stop playing good team basketball, they stop being physical, they take prayer shots and then they don’t even come close to stopping defense.
Do I have any hope that Gobert does that the ship will be straightened? Not really, right now. But I think he accurately describes what’s going on except for that part, and I thought you might want to hear it from him too.
3. Donovan Mitchell as cyborg, good and bad
Donovan Mitchell was again very obviously injured when he came into tonight’s game. He wasn’t on the injury report, but he clearly had difficulty walking in the first half of the game due to an injured right ankle. And then he seemed to modify the injury even further, slipping on a wet spot on the floor. After that he looked even grumpy.
It’s insane that he is playing through this just one season after trying to bounce back too early from an injured right ankle in last year’s playoffs last year. But Mitchell is stubborn and stubborn, and thinks he should play. And he’s the most important person in the organization, so he plays.
But you know what’s even more insane? Even while playing on a floppy ankle, he can do this:
That’s unbelievably good. In last year’s playoff series, despite the ankle injury, he played so well because he became Damian Lillard and just started making pull-up threes. Again, that makes sense: threes don’t use your ankle that much. Tonight he scored exclusively from 2-point baskets and free throws – it’s all ankle pressure, hard cuts. It shouldn’t be possible. Ben Dowsett called him a cyborg, which is perhaps the closest thing to reality.
But maybe his cyborg programming makes him a little too predictable. Here, with 5 minutes to go, he gets caught in the paint, too deep, surrounded by bigger bodies, and can’t find a way out.
And then on perhaps the most important asset of the Jazz, Paul George makes a calculated gamble: he leaves Jordan Clarkson flat out wide in the corner to get the ball.
Well, maybe it’s not so much of a gamble, if you know Mitchell’s late-game tendencies as well as George does after two playoff series.
For the third time in five games, Mitchell had another six turnovers tonight. He wasn’t the biggest reason the Jazz lost, but like Gobert, he’s a big part of the problem.
This team needs a shake-up, in the most desperate way possible.