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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.

 

Watch the top 60 blocked shots of last NBA season

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We love blocked shots. One player is attacking the rim, another gets in his way and rejects that shot. Frankly, we overestimate their importance on defense at points (because it’s a quantifiable stat in a world where defense is hard to quantify), but they matter.

And they are fun.

Check out the top 60 blocks from last season, as put together by NBA.com. It all starts with a chase down block by Kevin Durant (who has improved his rim protection in recent years) and ends with Anthony Davis showing why he is a beast.

It’s Sunday, and what else are you going to do? Watch preseason football?

Grizzlies expected to bring rookie Jaren Jackson along slowly

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Jaren Jackson was one of the standout rookies of Summer League. It started in Salt Lake City at the Jazz Summer League, where he looked like the future of the NBA five — knocking down threes, being athletic enough to run the court on the break, blocking shots, and being physical inside. In Utah, he averaged 15.7 points per game and five boards a night.

Expect the Grizzlies to bring Jackson along slowly, however, once the regular season starts. Jackson likely will come off the bench behind the starting frontline of Marc Gasol and JaMychal Green. That will not be popular with the fan base, but the Grizzlies want to trust their veterans and make a playoff push.

Look at what Grizzlies executive John Hollinger told the Peter Edmiston of the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

I think whatever happens, we want it to happen organically, and not get ahead of ourselves, and make sure we’re taking all the right steps on him, and not getting too excited and skipping ahead….

“We don’t want to put him into overtly physical matchups yet because he’s 18 and his body is still filling out,” he said.

Strength is almost always the biggest challenge facing young big men in the NBA (and Jackson is still 18, he will turn 19 during training camp). These are grown men they are going against nightly, and while Jackson had plenty of strength to hang with the Summer League crowd, things are very different when the big boys come to play. Even in an NBA moving away from old-school power ball, it still matters.

While the Grizzlies will work to not rush Jackson, that plan is somewhat dependent on players with a history of injury issues staying healthy. Jackson is not going to get 30 minutes a night, he’s not going to get the touches that fellow rookies such as Trae Young and Luka Doncic will receive, and he may not be in the mix for Rookie of the Year. We’ll see how things shake out, but on a Grizzlies team looking to put itself in the playoff conversation, the coach likely will lean on veterans he trusts.

Where Jackson will rank in this draft class three years from now could be very different. He has the potential to be the star of this class (or at least one of a few breakouts, this is an interesting group).

Victor Oladipo: “I play nothing safe now” because “that really didn’t get me anywhere”

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Victor Oladipo transformed last season.

Traded to the Pacers, he showed up to camp in better shape than he had ever been before, and with a new confidence in his handles and shot making. Coach Nate McMillan realized what he had, put the ball in Oladipo’s hands, and got out of the way. The result was a 48-win Pacers team where Oladipo was the league’s most improved player, made an All-NBA Team, the All-Defensive Team, and was an All-Star for the first time.

Oladipo, after going to the USA Basketball mini-camp in Las Vegas, is back in a Miami gym with the same team of trainers and staff who transformed his body and game a year ago. In a fantastic profile by J. Michael of the Indianapolis Star, Oladipo talks about the mental transformation he has undergone as well.

“I push the envelope. I play nothing safe now,” Oladipo says. “I’m the guy if we’re down two, I’m pulling up for three. I work too hard to not push the envelope. I used to be conservative but that really didn’t get me anywhere.”

His trainer, Al Watson, talked about getting Oladipo better prepared for defenses that focus on him and late-game situations.

“Last year we started doing a lot of tightening up his ball-handling skills. This year we took it to another level because I watch a lot of film on him,” Watson says. “In the fourth quarter, he’s like the point guard. Wanted to focus on a lot of combination moves, working on traps. It’s no secret now. They’re going to be double-teaming him.

“You look at the great players, Kobe, they had to do a little bit of everything. His shot from the perimeter may be off so he’s got to learn, ‘Let me get myself going, get to the mid-post, get some fouls.’ He’s got to be able to attack with all different facets of the game. We do a lot of sprinting, getting to your spots. Got to get open. I touch everything with in-game situation stuff.”

Oladipo’s team includes an off-the-court group trying to better position himself to make money off his stardom. He doesn’t want to play it safe off-the-court, either.

Indiana is going to lean heavily on Oladipo again. They added some depth — Doug McDermott, drafting Aaron Holiday — and are counting on more from players such as Myles Turner. However, by and large, the Pacers are running it back, and they are sneaking up on nobody this season. Internal improvement will be their key.

Oladipo is ready. He’s not playing it safe anymore.

Klay Thompson: “I would like to be a Warrior for life”

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Next summer, Klay Thompson becomes a free agent.

That has a lot of teams interested — they would love to pitch Thompson on how his elite shooting and strong defense would make him the star or their team and lift said team to new levels. Thompson is a big enough talent to have “his own team” if he wants it. Thompson’s free agency also excites fans who want to break up the Warriors juggernaut, this could be the first crack in the armor.

Or not.

At events around the Thompson Family Foundation Golf Tournament this weekend, Thompson reiterated to Mark Medina of the San Jose Mercury News that he wants to remain with the Warriors.

“I’ve said it many times before: I would like to be a Warrior for life,” Thompson told Bay Area News Group before hosting a party at Hotel Vitale as a prelude to his first annual Thompson Family Foundation Golf Tournament on Sunday at TPC Harding Park. “Contract negotiations are way down the line. But I think we all have the same interest. I would love to be here for the rest of my career.”

Would he take a massive discount and sign an extension?

“It’s tough to say,” Thompson said. “I’d definitely be interested. But at the end of the day, I’m going to be a free agent in 2019. Number one on my list would obviously be to stay with the Warriors.”

Thompson’s father Mychel — a former No. 1 pick, a 12-year NBA veteran with a couple of rings, and a current Lakers broadcaster — was more emphatic, speaking to Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle.

“Oh yeah, you can mark it down,” Mychal Thompson said at a party to kick off the Thompson Family Foundation’s first charity golf tourney. “Klay’s going to retire in the Warriors’ uniform. He’s going to play at Chase Center (the Warriors’ new arena, opening in 2019), and he’s not going to be at Chase Center as a visiting player, he’s going to be a Warrior for the next seven or eight years.”

Two thoughts here.

First, I am not a fan of taking seriously family members comments on players, they often miss the mark. However, there are exceptions, and Mychel Thompson is one of those. Not only has he lived the NBA life, but he and his son are also very close. He’s been a good barometer of what Klay is thinking.

Second, beyond Thompson’s own words, sources from other teams don’t expect Thompson to leave the Warriors. A lot of teams would love to make the pitch, they will place calls and try to get their foot in the door, but nobody really expects him to leave. Thompson is his own guy (he stepped out of his last contract extension talks to play with his dog), he’s not built with the “I have to be the man on my own team” ego that accompanies a lot of star players, what matters most to him is to win and be in a good environment, and he has that in Golden State. Thompson is happy. He’s not likely to sign an extension to stay with the Warriors, that would be financially stupid, but most sources expect him to give the team a discount and stay put.

Which kills the dreams of a lot of fan bases, but it’s the reality.