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How far can contrarian, big, defensive Jazz go in the West this season?

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This is the latest of NBC’s NBA season preview stories, and we will post at least one a day on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, with today the Jazz as the focus

We know the NBA buzzwords, the trends. Small ball. Offense over defense. Play fast. Teams have to have men who can spread the floor with their three-point shooting. Teams want undersized power forwards who play more like wings. The offense is to run a pick-and-roll to force a switch, then isolate and let your best shot creator attack the mismatch.

The Utah Jazz are none of that.

They are contrarian, a throwback. And they are one of the most dangerous teams in the NBA.

Utah is defensive team that starts a twin towers front line where neither can really step out and space the floor with their jumper. Utah’s starting power forward, Derrick Favors, is a power forward in the classic sense. They run a motion offense, and only 5.3 percent of their offensive attempts came out of isolation last season. They don’t play at a high pace, they prefer a game that grinds down, physically but also mentally.

They are not following the small ball trend, and that’s a conscious decision.

“Golden State has driven a perception that the whole league is small…” Jazz coach Quin Snyder told NBC Sports last season. “Because Golden State’s been the best team, you’re forced to match up with them, and then people will try to play small, but if you’re playing small just because someone else is, and then you’re not playing your best players, that’s a tough question. Do you chase a mismatch or do you play the way you play?”

Utah plays the way it plays. And with that, most pundits have them as a top-four team in the West (Vegas books have them with the fourth highest under/over win total in the West at 48.5), and some around the league wonder if the Jazz can beat a diminished Rockets’ squad this season.

However, does their style also have a ceiling? Utah’s defense stymied Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs last season, but the spacing and pace of the Houston Rockets proved to be too much — it was hard to keep Rudy Gobert on the court against those smaller lineups, and Houston’s switching defense stalled out the Utah offense.

If the question is “can we beat Golden State and Houston the way we play?” then 12 teams in the West — and 28 teams across the entire NBA — are asking that same question. Utah believes it can, or it can at least threaten them, by just doing what they do better.

If the Jazz are going to live up to a top-four slot, a few things have to happen, and it starts with Rudy Gobert staying healthy. He missed most of the first half of last season with knee injuries — not chronic things, but both times because a player fell into him — but once he was back and right Utah went 29-6 to close out the season. He won Defensive Player of the Year because of how dominant he was during that run.

Obviously, the reason for the hot finish was Utah’s incredible defense: After the All-Star break it allowed just 96 points per 100 possessions, by far the best in the league. That defense could get better this season: a healthy Gobert all season, plus full seasons out of Jae Crowder and Royce O’Neale, plus players with another season in the system.

The surprise for the Jazz last season was a respectable offense (16th in the league), which came about because rookie Donovan Mitchell played like an All-Star, 20.5 points and 3.7 assists per game. Mitchell impressed everyone, but sometimes players with strong rookie campaigns plateau their second season, not growing and making the next leap some expect. Utah, to take a step forward, needs him to grow.

Around him there are solid veterans who knew how to play the game — Gobert running the rim, Joe Ingles spotting up at the arc and moving the ball to the right man on closeouts, Ricky Rubio figuring out how to adjust to the motion offense then thriving in it as a distributor (after the All-Star break he averaged 15 points a game, shot 40.9 percent from three, and had 5.6 assists a night), and Derrick Favors getting his buckets.

Utah didn’t make big moves this summer but believes it has added some firepower. They re-signed Dante Exum over the summer and believe (more than anyone else) he is healthy and ready for a breakout year. They drafted Grayson Allen, who showed at Summer League he’s more than a spot-up guy. They get a full season of the solid Jae Crowder.

Utah is counting on continuity.

That and defense will alone not be enough. The Jazz need health, and they need the offense to get better — a few more easy buckets in transition would help. The Jazz were 19th in the NBA in percentage of offense that started in transition (stat via Cleaning The Glass) and while that’s not bad for a team that wants a defensive game, a few more easy transition buckets a night help.

The Jazz also need to better handle switching defenses — the elite teams they want to challenge in the West switch a lot, and to beat them in a seven-game series Utah has to score more comfortably against the switch. That doesn’t necessarily mean a James Harden back-it-out-and-isolate play, but to do it in the context of the motion offense requires precision and ability to exploit the smallest mistake the Jazz did not have last season.

The Jazz are going to be the Jazz this season — contrarian, grinding, and a nightly defensive force. That can take them a long way, especially in the regular season.
If it can get them where they want to go in the playoffs is a much tougher question.

LeBron, Lakers top Tatum’s big afternoon for Celtics

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LOS ANGELESLeBron James scored 29 points and put the Lakers ahead on a fallaway jumper with 30 seconds to play, and Los Angeles split its season series with the Boston Celtics with a 114-112 victory Sunday.

James missed a tying free throw moments before he coolly nailed the shot the put the Lakers ahead to stay in a frenetic fourth quarter to cap the latest chapter of this famed NBA rivalry.

Anthony Davis had 32 points and 13 rebounds in the fifth straight win overall for the Lakers, who took a 32-point blowout loss in Boston last month.

Davis hit two free throws with 12.3 seconds left and added one more with 6.7 seconds to play, before Jayson Tatum was called for charging in the final second as he attempted to create one last basket.

Tatum matched his career high with 41 points for the Celtics, who had won 12 of 14 starting with that dominant win over the Lakers in January.

Boston turned the ball over with 15.5 seconds left after James’ big shot, and Celtics coach Brad Stevens got a technical foul for arguing about it. Davis missed that free throw, however.

Grant Williams hit two free throws for Boston immediately afterward, and Davis hit one of two to give a final chance to the Celtics.

Jaylen Brown scored 20 points for Boston, but Kemba Walker missed his second straight game with left knee soreness.

The rematch was far more competitive than the teams’ first meeting this season, with both taking small leads in the fourth quarter before the exciting finish.

Davis’ third 3-pointer put the Lakers up 108-105 with 2:08 to play, but Gordon Hayward hit a jumper before Brown’s 3-pointer put the Celtics back ahead 110-108 with 1:17 to go.

With the Lakers’ immediate return to excellence since beating out Boston to acquire Davis last summer, these longtime rivals are both playoff-bound championship contenders yet again.

Los Angeles is comfortably atop the Western Conference standings, while the Celtics sit third in the East. Both teams have a decent shot of meeting in the NBA Finals for the 13th time if they continue to grow from big games like this thriller.

Tatum underlined his growing superstardom by matching the career high he set against New Orleans last month. He scored 16 points in a five-minute barrage alone during the third quarter, finishing the period with 18.

The Lakers hung in with 16 points in the third from Davis after his quiet first half.

Walker scored 20 points against the Lakers last month to beat James for the first time in the stars’ 29 career meetings. The Lakers took their worst loss of the season in that initial meeting while getting just 23 minutes from Davis, who had just returned from a two-week injury absence.

The rematch featured much more defense than the teams’ first meeting, with Rajon Rondo and Brown both making big steals for their respective clubs. Only Tatum made a major offensive impact in the first half with 19 points.

TIP-INS

Celtics: Walker’s injury is “not a long-term thing,” Stevens said. Walker did work in the weight room before the game. … The bench scored just five points in the first three quarters, including only one field goal, and finished with 11 points.

Lakers: James went down in pain early in the fourth quarter when Daniel Theis ran into him under the basket. James stayed in the game after a timeout. … Rondo spent much of the pregame warmup chatting with Kevin Garnett, his longtime Celtics teammate. Garnett then watched the game from the baseline near the LA bench with Lakers part-owner Patrick Soon-Shiong. … The matchup is always a hot ticket for celebrities. Fans near courtside included Eddie Murphy, Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington.

UP NEXT

Celtics: Visit the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday night.

Lakers: Host the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday night.

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

Jaren Jackson Jr. out for at least two weeks for Grizzlies

Jaren Jackson Jr. and Gordon Hayward
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The Memphis Grizzlies announced that Jaren Jackson Jr. suffered a sprained left knee late during the second quarter of Friday’s game vs the Los Angeles Lakers:

Memphis says Jackson will be re-evaluated in two weeks.

In his second year, Jackson has been a big part of the Grizzlies surprising success. Memphis is currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with a record of 28-28. Jackson has proven to be an ideal running mate for rookie point guard Ja Morant, as the Grizzlies have rebuilt quicker than anyone expected.

With Jackson out, Memphis will need to replace 16.9 points and 1.6 blocks per game. Jackson also regularly functions as the Grizzlies backup center, sliding over to play the pivot when starter Jonas Valanciunas is out.

With Jackson out for at least two weeks, and potentially longer, Memphis will lean on Kyle Anderson and rookie Brandon Clarke at the four. The trickle-down impact may be more minutes for backup center Gorgui Dieng, who was acquired at the trade deadline, up front behind Valanciunas. In addition, Josh Jackson, who spent the first few months of the season in the G-League, has had a bit of resurgence in recent weeks. With Anderson likely to play more at power forward, Jackson may see even more minutes on the wing.

Ben Simmons out at least through Monday

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Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons‘ troublesome back will keep him out at least through Monday reports NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Serena Winters. Winters reports that Simmons went through testing upon the Sixers return to Philadelphia on Sunday and will have further testing done on Monday:

Simmons missed the first game back from the All-Star break on Thursday due to back soreness. He then exited Saturday night’s game at the Milwaukee Bucks after playing less than five minutes.

Simmons went to his second-straight All-Star game last week. He’s averaged 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 8.2 assists and a league-leading 2.1 steals per game through 54 games this season.

An up-and-down season sees Philadelphia currently fifth in the Eastern Conference. The 76ers are an equal 1.5 games behind Miami for fourth and ahead of Indiana in sixth. The Sixers would love to climb to fourth for homecourt advantage in the postseason, as they’ve been dominant at home with a 26-2 record, while underwhelming on the road at just 9-20.

With Joel Embiid continuing to suffer from injuries, while also having his minutes managed, Philadelphia can’t afford to be without Simmons for long. The 76ers added depth on the wing at the trade deadline with Alec Bucks and Glenn Robinson III, but have little behind Simmons at point guard. Raul Neto started in Simmons’ place on Thursday, but did not play on Saturday until the game was well in-hand for Milwaukee.

Lance Stephenson hopes strong season in China springboards him back to NBA

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The Chinese Basketball Association season is up in the air because of the Coronavirus outbreak. The season is postponed and, while there is talk of restarting it on April 1, there are more questions than answers about that plan right now.

Lance Stephenson was in China playing for the Liaoning Flying Leopards and — as many American scorers can do against the soft defenses in the CBA — put up impressive numbers. Stephenson is hoping to use that as a springboard back to the NBA, reports Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

Will it work for Stephenson? Maybe. It only takes one GM looking for a little scoring punch down the stretch to buy-in.

However, GMs also know the numbers are inflated in China and it doesn’t translate to being able to do the same thing in the NBA. Jimmer Fredette is example 1A. Or, here are the top five scorers in the Chinese league so far this season:

1. Dominique Jones (Jilin Northeast Tigers) 37.8
2. Joe Young (Nanjing Monkey Kings) 35.9
3. Darius Adams (Qingdao Eagles) 34.9
4. Tyler Hansbrough (Sichuan Blue Whales) 32.3
5. Jonathan Gibson (Jiangsu Dragons) 31.2

All of those guys, and a lot more, would like to use China as a springboard back to the NBA. That, however, is proving to be a long leap.