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How the Utah Jazz became the team nobody in the West playoffs wants to face

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LOS ANGELES — On Jan. 15, the Utah Jazz were 17-26, nine games under .500 and five games out of the playoffs, they were without injured big man Rudy Gobert, not to mention the Jazz were still trying to figure out their offense in the wake of Gordon Hayward’s summer departure. A lot of teams would have mentally folded at that point (if management didn’t decide for them to tank and focus on getting a high draft pick).

Since then the Jazz are 31-7, and their defense — anchored by likely Defensive Player of the Year Gobert — is allowing less than a point per possession.

That run has vaulted them into the playoffs, and with a win Wednesday night in Portland, the No. 3 seed.

Ask around other top teams in the West about what teams they’d like to avoid in the first round and Utah’s name is quick to come up — because of that defense. Even the teams sure they could knock off Utah know it would be a physical series against a resilient team that will not quit. Utah will enter the playoffs as anywhere from the three to five seed and there is no team in the West thinking the Jazz would be an easy out.

Which is amazing to say coming off a weird season for the Jazz.

“Weird is an understatement,” Utah’s coach Quin Snyder said. “Starting with the uncertainty around what our team would look like (without Hayward), aside from the standpoint we knew we wanted to be grounded defensively. Then we lost Rudy (Gobert, to two different knee injuries). It’s harder to do that without him….

Then you get into December where you know you’ve got the toughest schedule of any month for any team in the league. Then around December 18 [Note: it was Dec. 15 when Gobert suffered a second knee injury], you can forget that because you’re struggling without Rudy. We had a lot of challenges. There was a point that this group, the guys that are here, continued not to think about it and do the best with what we have. It started out with just maintaining our competitive spirit and being unselfish, and then see where it goes.”

It went to the playoffs.

“You’ve seen teams that lose their star player… they fall back to a lottery team. They fall to being a team where we don’t expect much,” Jazz star rookie Donovan Mitchell said of Utah’s attitude coming into camp without Gordon. “We never had that mindset, you didn’t feel that. Me, coming in, it wasn’t talked about, it just felt like ‘we’re here to play.’ People overlooked the fact that ya, we lost our main scoring option, but we still had Rudy, and him being defensive player of the year.”

Two things defined this Jazz season, and it’s those two things that make them a real playoff threat: their defense and rookie Donovan Mitchell.

Since Gobert’s Jan. 19 return from a second knee injury, Utah has allowed just 97.4 points per 100 possessions defensively — far and away the best in the league (second in that stretch is Philadelphia at 101.4). With Gobert in the lineup, the Jazz are the best defensive rebounding team in the league — it helps to have Derrick Favors on the front line with Gobert for that — and the Jazz shut down easy buckets for the other team, allowing just 9.8 fast break points per game (best in the NBA). For the season (which includes the 26 games without Gobert) Utah allows the fifth lowest percentage of opponent shots at the rim — with many of those drives becoming pull-ups because of Gobert’s presence inside had players not wanting to challenge him. Plus, because they have Gobert as a backstop, Utah perimeter defenders can be aggressive chasing guys off the three-point line — Utah allowed the fourth fewest percent of opponent shots from three (stats via cleaning the glass).

With Gobert back healthy and anchoring that defense, Utah had THE defining stretch of their season — from January 24 through Valentine’s Day Feb. 14 the Jazz did not lose. It was 11 straight wins, vaulting them back up into the playoff picture.

“After the win streak we expected to win,” Mitchell said. “We saw what we can do, so why not continue it? A lot of teams get the win streak and are like ‘we have it’ and put it in their back pocket and save it for later. We were like ‘let’s do this for the rest of the year.’ Why not continue to win and play the way we have been?”

They did — from March 2-17 Utah rattled off another nine straight wins.

While the lockdown defense anchored this team and put them in position to win games, they still needed to score. That’s where rookie Donovan Mitchell came in.

Mitchell has gone from almost overlooked 13th pick in the last draft — a guy Utah traded up to get because they believed in him — to a serious Rookie of the Year candidate averaging 20.5 points per night as the focal point of Utah’s offense.

When the season tipped off, Mitchell looked like a lot of other rookie guards, overwhelmed by the speed and athleticism of the NBA game — in October, Mitchell averaged just 9.3 points a game with a dreadful true shooting percentage of 40.9. However, Mitchell is an avid watcher of film and he caught on fast. By December he was averaging 23.1 points per game on a true shooting percentage of 61.1 (those numbers came back to earth a little as defenses adjusted to him, but his efficiency has remained strong).

“When the season started it really took off real quick for me, and it took seven or eight games to catch up (to the speed)…” Mitchell told NBC Sports. “Then this season, just taking it game-by-game, getting a better understanding of what they needed from me, how to approach games, how to approach certain matchups, how to approach reads and coverages.”

Snyder saw what he had in Mitchell and by the second month of the season put the ball in his hands — but didn’t let up on the rookie.

“He’s been stern,” Mitchell said of Snyder. “He’s been real firm on how he wants me to develop. He says he’s going to let me make mistakes, but he’s going to let me know…. The way he’s coaching me, I don’t think I can make a lot of mistakes most rookies make. That’s my mindset. I don’t look at myself as a rookie anymore, and just being able to understand that this is a lot different than October. He’s been great, he’s been very understanding. He tells me he trusts me all the time. So you have that backing.”

It’s not October anymore — it’s about to be the playoffs. The intensity of play is about to go up a couple more notches.

“Now (in the playoffs), teams have three or four days to scout you,” Mitchell said. “They play you over and over and over again, so shot you have there in Game 1 is not going to be there in Game 2, the same shot you take in Game 2 is not going to be there in Game 3 and you’re going to have to understand that, you’re going to have to find different ways to get involved, whether it’s offensively or defensively, find other ways to get guys open, and to find the right open guys because now they have so much film to watch from the season… just being able to take it step by step and be able to read and study film and where the openings are.”

Mitchell still is a relentless attacker on offense — he averaged 13.2 drives per game, 11th most in the league, and since the All-Star break he averages the eighth most drives per game. He shoots and efficient 51 percent on those, and more importantly, he’s becoming a better passer on those plays, finding spot-up specialist Joe Ingles or other Jazz shooters for assists on 9.9 percent of them.

“Earlier in the season, a lot of those passes I would probably take to the rim or throw up a crazy shot,” Mitchell said of the passes he made in recent games. “It slowed down, it allows me to find guys when they’re open. It goes back to watching a lot of film and just knowing where my teammates are going to be.”

Starting this weekend, Mitchell is going to have to connect on those passes through even tighter windows. Joe Ingles is going to have to keep knocking down threes. Ricky Rubio is going to need to keep making smart passes in transition, plus hit a few jumpers. Derrick Favors needs to own the glass and get some buckets. And Rudy Gobert needs to continue being Rudy Gobert.

Do that, and they are the exact kind of team nobody wants to face in the first round. A team built for playoff basketball that will welcome the physical play. A team that has already proved they will not quit.

A team that is dangerous.

 

Jazz will focus on adding offensive punch in offseason

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Few teams could match the Utah Jazz in their ability to dominate on defense this season. An inability to generate consistent offense, however, ultimately doomed Utah in the postseason.

After getting knocked out of the first-round of the postseason by the Houston Rockets, change is in the air for the Jazz as the team heads into the offseason. Utah plans to target shooters and playmakers in free agency who can take some of the defensive focus away from leading scorer Donovan Mitchell.

“We want to move the group forward,” Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey said at the team’s practice facility Thursday. “While we have a very good team, the results told us that we don’t have a great team.”

Utah does have a solid foundation in place thanks to continued progress from Mitchell and center Rudy Gobert. The duo helped lead the Jazz to a 50-win season and a third straight playoff berth.

Mitchell overcame a sluggish start to his sophomore season and showed his stellar rookie campaign was no fluke. After January 1st, Mitchell averaged 26.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 4.8 assists to lead the Jazz. His season average of 23.8 points led all second-year NBA players. He is the first second-year NBA guard to average more than 23 points since Dwyane Wade in 2004-05.

Mitchell impressed teammates with his relentless work ethic throughout the season. He showed up at the team’s practice facility at all hours, trying to work on every possible facet of his game. Even after all he’s accomplished, Mitchell is driven to prove he belongs

“I wasn’t expected to be here and I really don’t want to lose this,” Mitchell said. “As a kid, my favorite subject was recess. Why? Because I could go play basketball. As a 22-year old kid now, to have that all come full circle, it’s a blessing.”

Gobert is driven to push himself, too. The reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year showed a stronger offensive dimension in his game this season. Gobert led the league in field goal percentage (.669), dunks (306), and screen assists per game (5.9). He posted per game career highs in points (15.9), rebounds (12.9), and assists (2.0) in 2018-19.

Along the way, Gobert became only the second NBA player to total more than 1,200 points and 1,000 rebounds while shooting over 65 percent from the field in a single season, joining Wilt Chamberlain, who did it in 1966-67.

Like Mitchell, Gobert is hungry to prove he can do more.

“I haven’t scratched the surface of what I can become offensively,” Gobert said. “I want to take it to the next level. I’ve been putting too much limits on myself and what I can do for this team. Now, I have a little bit more time to work and come back as a better player.”

Here’s a few other things to watch with the Jazz in the offseason:

POINT GUARD CHANGES?

Finding a new starting point guard may top the summer agenda for the Jazz.

Ricky Rubio is an unrestricted free agent after spending the last two seasons in Utah. Rubio has been an effective scorer at times during his stint with the Jazz. Over the past two years, he had 26 20-point games – five more than his previous six seasons in Minnesota combined. On the other hand, Rubio also struggled with inconsistent shooting.

Lindsey said he can envision multiple scenarios that include a return to Utah for Rubio. The veteran guard wants to take his time and see which coach and team will offer the best fit for him.

“I want to be happy,” Rubio said. “So I’m going to try to find the best situation for me to perform and to be happy.”

FAVORS RISING

Derrick Favors has one more year remaining on a two-year deal he signed last summer to remain in Utah. The second year is a team option that needs to be picked up by July 6th to become fully guaranteed for 2019-20. Odds are good Favors will return for his ninth full season with the Jazz.

He adjusted to a new role, splitting time as the starting power forward and backup center to Gobert. Favors flourished as the season progressed. 12 of his 15 double-doubles came after January 1st and Favors finished the season with a career-best effective field goal percentage (60.0).

His play received a boost after he slimmed down from 274 pounds to 248 pounds before the season.

“It’s something I’ll be focusing on again in the offseason,” Favors said. “I’ll be slimming down even more. Getting quicker so I’ll be able to guard on the perimeter and be able to guard in the pick and roll.”

KORVER RETIREMENT?

Veteran guard Kyle Korver helped energize a sagging Jazz offense in his second stint with the team. Utah went 25-4 in games in which he hit two or more 3-point field goals and posted a 36-18 (.667) record after acquiring Korver in a November trade

The Jazz have a team option to pick up Korver’s contract for the 2019-20 season. It becomes partially guaranteed after July 7. At age 38, Korver is uncertain whether or not he will return for a 17th season. `

“There’s a real cost as you get older,” Korver said. “There’s all of what you need to put into the game, but there’s also a family cost. That’s probably where I’m at, is weighing that cost.”

3-POINT FLURRY

Utah’s inability to make open shots in the postseason put a damper on an otherwise solid effort from the perimeter during the season. The Jazz set a franchise record by making 10-or-more 3-pointers in 65 games this season.

Their bench provided a big push in achieving that mark. Utah’s second unit knocked down 5.7 3s per contest. That was the second most of any NBA team and the highest rate in franchise history.

DOMINANT DEFENSE

For the third straight season, Utah earned a top-five defensive rating among NBA teams. The Jazz finished with a 105.2 defensive rating, which ranked second in the league. After Jan. 1, Utah sported a league-best 105.4 defensive rating. The Jazz also posted a plus 7.7 net rating during that same stretch.

Gobert keyed much of that defensive success with his ability to lock down around the rim. He contested 16.0 shots per game, the second-highest rate among NBA players.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: What pressure? Veteran Spurs shoot way to Game 7

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The NBA playoffs are in full swing and there can be a lot to unpack in a series of intense games, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Pressure? What pressure? Veteran Spurs step up, shoot San Antonio into Game 7 vs. Denver. It’s why San Antonio was a trendy upset pick in the first round against Denver: Experience. Guys they could trust in the clutch who would step up and make plays, and a coach in Gregg Popovich who would put them in positions to do just that.

Backs against the wall in Game 6, the Spurs experience mattered.

LaMarcus Aldridge had 26 points on 10-of-18 shooting, changing his strategy to attack more by facing up on Nikola Jokic. DeMar DeRozan added 25 points on 12-of-16 shooting. Rudy Gay came off the bench for 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting. The veterans took advantage of a soft Nuggets defense and just destroyed them from the midrange — look at this shot chart.

The end result was a 120-103 San Antonio win on their home court. It forces Game 7 Saturday in Denver.

The other key to this win was the San Antonio defense, and the strategy behind it. Jokic and Jamal Murray had success with a two-man game (a lot of pick-and-rolls) and the Spurs lived with that, not helping off shooters to defend the actions. The result was Jokic had a career-high (and Nuggets franchise playoff high) 43 points, doing that in 30 shots. He was a beast on the night.

However, Jokic and Murray combined to take 51 percent of Denver’s shots, up from 34.6 percent and 40.5 percent in the previous two wins — the ball movement and transition buckets that characterize the Nuggets offense were missing. Denver was taken out of its flow.

In Game 7, can that Spurs defense again take the Nuggets out of rhythm, or will the Nuggets role players feel more comfortable and shoot better than 25 percent (6-of-24) from three? It’s one game, anything can happen, and usually one unexpected player ends up being the star.

It’s good we have at least one game seven in the first round.

2) RIP John Havlicek, a basketball legend and true Celtic. John Havlicek left a heck of a legacy on the court — eight NBA titles (8-0 in the Finals), 11-time All-NBA, eight-time All-Defensive team, 13-time All-Star, Hall of Famer, probably the greatest sixth man the game has ever seen.

What matters more is his legacy off the court, where former teammates and everyone who interacted with the man praised him.

Hondo passed away Thursday at the age of 79. The love that poured in for him was genuine, and the thoughts about his game secondary.

“John Havlicek was a wonderful friend who represented the best of the NBA,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “He described himself as a man of routine and discipline – a humble approach that produced extraordinary results, including eight NBA championships with the Boston Celtics, 13 All-Star selections and some of the most iconic moments in league history. A trusted teammate who prioritized winning, John’s passion and energy endeared him to basketball fans and made him a model for generations of NBA players. We send our deepest sympathies to John’s wife, Beth, his son, Chris, and his daughter, Jill, as well as the entire Celtics organization.”

3) Houston will be in Bay Area before Warriors/Clippers Game 6 ends. There is another Game 6 on Friday night, the feisty Los Angeles Clippers — and their pick-and-roll combination of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell — will try to force a Game 7 against the championship favorites, the Golden State Warriors.

The Houston Rockets aren’t buying the Clippers’ chances.

Friday the Rockets are flying up to the Bay Area to get comfortable and rested before the series with the Warriors — before Game 6 is even. Tim MacMahon of ESPN first reported this.

It’s more about the league’s scheduling than the Clippers. If the Warriors win Friday (Golden State is a 10-point favorite), then the Rockets/Warriors series starts on Sunday. Steve Kerr can thank the Television Gods that run NBA playoff scheduling that gives his team just one day off to prepare for the Rockets.

The Rockets, wisely, want to be ready for the most likely outcome, which means a game on Sunday.

The Warriors admitted they were complacent in Game 5 at home, expecting to win and defending like they thought a win was their birthright. One would think blowing a 31-point lead at home earlier in the series would have taught the Warriors a lesson about underestimating the Clippers — this team is hard not to like, with its energy, passion, and Williams getting buckets — but the Warriors racked up a lot of bad habits during the regular season and they have not been that easy to shake through five games.

The Clippers have been surprising teams and spoiling plans all season long. They may do it to the Rockets, but Houston wants to be prepared for what we all know is coming — the defacto Western Conference Finals. Which probably start Sunday.

Report: FBI investigating Big Baller Brand co-founder Gregory Alan Foster

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It’s sad that people take advantage of athletes. A lot of people do it when these guys are very young and clearly talented, and Los Angeles Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball is no stranger to that.

Ball cut ties with his Big Baller Brand earlier this year, even covering up his “BBB” tattoo with a bad-looking pair of dice. This was because Gregory Alan Foster, one of his confidants and business partners, allegedly stole money from the company to the tune of several million dollars.

Now the FBI is reportedly investigating Foster for his involvement in bilking money from Ball.

Via LA Times:

The FBI is now investigating whether Foster defrauded the Ball family out of millions of dollars, according to two law enforcement sources. While it’s unclear when exactly the official investigation began, one of those sources said it is at least two months old.

Lonzo Ball and the family’s shoe and clothing business recently accused Foster in a lawsuit of taking more than $1.5 million out of the company’s bank accounts and accepting “substantial undisclosed referral fees” from at least eight loans he arranged on behalf of the company.

“[Foster is] like my second dad,” Lonzo replied. “So when he came to me, I just talked to him and I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it. He just gave me his story. Now, looking back at it, obviously I wish we would have jumped at it back in October.”

According to the Times, Foster’s whereabouts are currently unknown. Hopefully Ball will be able to recover some kind of financial damages from all of this.

Spurs’ smart defense, veterans force Game 7 with 120-103 win over Nuggets

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Nikola Jokic had a career night — 43 points, a personal and franchise playoff best, plus 12 rebounds and nine assists. Once again the two-man game, the pick-and-roll with him and Jamal Murray got into the lane and carved up San Antonio.

The Spurs lived with that. What they did, however, was not collapse off Denver’s shooters to help in the paint — to try to contest twos but give up good-look threes. Denver got its buckets inside — they won the points in the paint battle 72-36 — but shot just 8-of-31 outside the paint on the night.

The Nuggets stars took the shots they were given — Jokic and Murray combined to take 51 percent of Denver’s shots, up from 34.6 percent and 40.5 percent in the previous two wins — but the ball movement and transition buckets that characterize the Nuggets were missing. The Spurs took that away.

Combine that with veterans LaMarcus Aldridge (26 points on 10-of-18 shooting), DeMar DeRozan (25 points on 12-of-16 shooting), and Rudy Gay (19 points on 7-of-11 shooting) stepping up and you end up with the Spurs pulling away for a 120-103 Game 6 win on their home court.

It forces Game 7 Saturday in Denver. The winner advances to take on Portland in the second round.

“We didn’t defend tonight, from the jump ball,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. “They came out and scored 34 points in the first quarter, shot 70 percent or close to it [66.7 percent in first], and to give up 120 points in a potential elimination game, 57 [percent shooting]. It just wasn’t good enough.”

The game was decided by a 22-4 San Antonio run that spanned the end of the third and into the start of the fourth quarter, when the Nuggets pulled away.

“It was turnovers for us, it was offensive rebounds for them, and just no defense,” Malone said of the run.

The other difference in the game was the three-point shooting, an area where the Nuggets have dominated through the first five games. Thursday both teams took 24 shots from three, but the Spurs made 10 and the Nuggets six. That’s a dozen points to San Antonio in an area Denver needs to win.

It was like that all night.

San Antonio came out playing like the desperate team on the brink of elimination, playing with energy and staring out 7-of-10 from the floor. The Spurs built up a 10-point point first-quarter lead behind Aldridge, who had 13 points in the first quarter, 6-of-9 from the floor, plus the team shot 65.4 percent for the quarter.

Denver was not phased (this was the fifth time in six games they lost the first quarter), and after shooting 0-of-7 in the first quarter hit 4-of-5 to start the second. The Nuggets got back to playing the kind of ball-movement hoops — with a lot of Murray and Jokic playing off each other and scoring — and the Nuggets grabbed the lead back in the quarter. However, after a DeRozan putback bucket off his own missed free throw at the buzzer gave the Spurs a 64-60 lead at the half. That hustle play seemed to signify the Spurs night.

The game was close through much of the third, but the trends favored San Antonio.

Then the late-quarter run started, and Denver faded. Now they need to find their mojo on the plane home, because Saturday is win-or-go-home for everybody.