LOS ANGELES — The Jazz found their rhythm Saturday night: The ball flew around the court, back-door cuts led to dunks, two-thirds of their shots were uncontested (via NBA.com), and even struggling Mike Conley hit 5-of-11, including two threes.
Does that mean Utah’s offense is on track after a couple of rough games to start the season? Or, does it mean Utah can still carve up a not-very-good defense Sacramento that relies heavily on rotations (that the Kings were slow to make), but will still struggle against tougher teams?
Answers to those questions are coming against better teams, Monday night against the fast-starting Suns, then especially on Wednesday when the Clippers roll into Salt Lake City.
Either way, the Jazz aren’t really worried.
After a summer of moves — in particular, adding Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic to bolster their shooting and playmaking — they believe the offense will come around.
“We’ve got to not think the game too much, just go out there and play,” Jeff Green said. “We’ve got some high IQ guys just need to let them play.”
“Our defense is way ahead of our offense, we just got to figure it out on the offensive end…” Donovan Mitchell said after a recent loss to the Lakers. “I think a lot of times we just got to go out and shoot. I think a lot of times we just kind of passed up shots, kinda hesitant, not knowing where to be, and it just takes being more together.”
As expected, Utah’s defense is the best in the league through three games, allowing less than a point per possession in scoring.
Utah’s offense, on the other hand, was clunky the first couple of games of the season, particularly against the long and aggressive Lakers. The Jazz scored exactly a point per possession in their first game against the Thunder, then less than that against the Lakers (90 offensive rating). That jumped to a 115 offensive rating on Saturday night against a struggling Sacramento team (stats via Cleaning the Glass, which eliminates garbage time).
Sometimes a team needs a slump-buster game like that to get on track. The question now is, can they keep it going?
Green was right about those first two games, Utah players seemed to be thinking the game not playing it. That led to guys being hesitant — a word that came up a lot in conversations with the Jazz — or just missing shots. Conley was just 4-of-29 through his first two games in a Jazz uniform.
“It’s like being in quicksand, you try harder and harder and you keep digging yourself into that hole,” Conley said of his shooting slump at the time. “But I can’t shy away from good looks, I’m getting good opportunities and I’m just not making them. That’s frustrating for me.”
Mostly, however, the Jazz thought this was an issue of familiarity.
“Eight new guys, that’s a lot of guys,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said of his team.
“When you’re not entirely comfortable you can be more indecisive, but I think we can do better than we did [against Lakers] without being familiar,” Snyder added. “We have to be committed to playing together.”
“You’re still learning guys tendencies, where they like to get [the ball], where they like to move. But I think we’re getting good looks,” Joe Ingles said after the Lakers’ loss.
Against Sacramento, those looks fell.
With their elite defense, the Jazz don’t need a top-five offense to win, it just has to be good. Last season, Utah was middle of the pack on offense (14th in the league with a 110.3 offensive rating, meaning points scored per 100 possessions). Much of that offense came out of Snyder’s system, which looked to maximize player off-ball movement, setting screens away from the ball, and then finding those players when they pop open. However, in the playoffs the better defenses take away those plays and it becomes about playmakers and shot creators. Utah had Donovan Mitchell and then… Donovan Mitchell. It was him against the world and the world was destined to win.
This season, in comes Conley — one of the better pick-and-roll point guards in the league, now paired with one of the best roll men in the league in Rudy Gobert. Bogdanovic was a secondary shot creator in Indiana who had to take on a lot more after Victor Oladipo went down, and he impressed. Combine them with an improved and attacking Mitchell and…
They stumbled out of the gate.
However, after a strong preseason and training camp, nobody with Utah was worried. The path past it was more work and getting more familiar with one another.
“It’s trying to get as many reps as we can together,” Conley said. “Even outside of games, in shootarounds and practices, and really taking that upon ourselves to get together and work on different things. Work on pick-and-rolls, work on passing in certain situations, because we got a team full of new guys, a handful that were here before, so we’re all still learning. The quicker we learn each other, the quicker we’ll be able to get into a good rhythm.”
They found that rhythm against Sacramento. Now the Jazz just have to keep the beat going.