SALT LAKE CITY — Three thoughts on the Jazz's 103-89 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder from KSL.com's Utah Jazz beat writer, Andy Larsen.
1. Jazz get beat in the battle of the ball
The Jazz have played the Oklahoma City Thunder so frequently this season: just four days ago on Wednesday, three times in December, and four times already in 2017-18. These teams knew each other extremely well.
So that's why it was so surprising to see the Jazz fall into Oklahoma City's best traps Saturday night, despite that familiarity. Oklahoma City is the best offensive rebounding team in the NBA, and yet, the Jazz let the Thunder get 15 offensive rebounds in some pretty disappointing ways.
This one is just Joe Johnson not fulfilling his responsibility to box out Josh Huestis at the end of the quarter, his only role in that possession:
Huestis putback dunk... nice play, but Joe Johnson has to be more aware here pic.twitter.com/TrNhv1eauS— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) December 24, 2017
"It wasn't just Adams," Snyder said of the Thunder's big man, who had six of those 15 offensive boards. "I didn't think we were determined enough on the glass."
Turnovers also hurt the Jazz, especially early. The Jazz had 14 turnovers as a team on Saturday night, while the Thunder only had eight. Those Jazz turnovers led to 20 points for the Thunder, easy runouts that you have to expect when Russell Westbrook or Paul George are coming with a full head of steam the other way. The Thunder are the league's best team at forcing turnovers.
There were some weird ones, too. Joe Ingles had a weird ballhandling turnover, tried to go behind the back and just misdribbled it. Here, Thabo Sefolosha gets himself up in the air and just throws the ball away. It seems like he wanted to pass it into Favors here, but the ball is still in his hands when Favors is already surrounded:
Here's a weird Ingles avoiding taking a corner three leading to a weirder Sefolosha turnover: pic.twitter.com/n8QS5UH8X3— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) December 24, 2017
The other reason I wanted to highlight that play: the Jazz continually turn down open shots. Ingles just needs to shoot that three, and if he doesn't, he's a liability. The Jazz turned down a few of those tonight, plays that just leave you shaking your head.
All in all, the Thunder ended up taking 16 more shots than the Jazz, 88-72. Unless the Jazz were going to the free-throw line significantly more often than the Thunder (they weren't), it was just going to be impossible for the Jazz to win while playing like that.
2. Donovan Mitchell comes back from injury, brilliant offensively once again
Donovan Mitchell was coming off of two games out with a contusion on his big toe, the only time he's ever missed games due to injury in his basketball career, he said.
But in his first game back, against the best defensive opponent possible, he was just about as brilliant as a player can possibly be. He scored 29 points on 12 of 16 shooting, attacking the rim and scoring time and time again on elite perimeter defenders like George and Andre Roberson.
The first thing that allows him to do this is his superior athleticism. With Rudy Gobert, Dante Exum, and Donovan Mitchell out on Wednesday, Quin Snyder noted how the Jazz were less athletic than the Thunder at nearly every position in their starting lineup in that game. With Mitchell, though, the balance changes a little bit. He's exceptionally quick, and you can see it on plays like this:
DonovanMitchellIsASpeedyAndTalentedBasketballPlayer.gif pic.twitter.com/CnCh77BOW4— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) December 24, 2017
Of course, speed isn't the only part of athleticism: there's also fluidity and body control. But Mitchell has that too. Here, he spins to the basket moving left, but gets the ball to his right hand and finishes in the space he just left behind. It never looks like it's too difficult for Mitchell:
That kind of finishing ability is so impressive and comes with all of the defense's attention put squarely on his shoulders, as the other Jazz perimeter players struggled. The pressure on the rim forces a chain reaction which gets other players open for shots, too.
Take this play at the end of the first half, where Mitchell drives on Roberson (again, one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA), beats him, forces Adams to rotate over and help, which forces Paul George to come sink in on Derrick Favors. That leaves Ingles open for this beautiful pass, right on the money from Mitchell.
Here is Donovan Mitchell just breaking down Andre Roberson & the OKC defense, kicking out a beautiful pass to Joe Ingles. Jingles owes him a thousand dollars for missing the shot pic.twitter.com/cjsES4jMCm— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) December 24, 2017
Ingles owes Mitchell a very nice Christmas present.
3. Stars react to Mitchell
Speaking of Christmas gifts, let's step back and take some time to appreciate exactly how fortunate the Jazz are to have Mitchell. One sign of this is the respect opposing superstars, like Westbrook, George, and Carmelo Anthony are literally lining up to give Mitchell after games, both on and off the court.
First of all, Westbrook isn't usually a guy who is friendly with opposing stars. He'll famously have words, mean ones, to say to any number of opponents after games. So that Westbrook had so much to say to Mitchell here is really unique, though we don't know what was said.
"Westbrook doesn't really talk to anybody, so that kind of took me for a spin," Mitchell pointed out afterwards, though didn't indicate what Westbrook said.
Anthony and George both said their bits as well, though I'm guessing they were a little bit more standard, compared to the wild Westbrook. But while Anthony also didn't want to reveal what he said postgame, he didn't mince words about Mitchell's future:
And this came after a game in which Mitchell and Anthony got in a little bit of a kerfuffle of their own late in the game with much cursing and yelling, after a run of physical plays. Mitchell still had a bit of that competitive taste in his mouth after the game:
"It's a blessing and an honor for that to happen, but I want to beat those guys," Mitchell said. "I respect them to the highest level, but I want to win."
This season was always about figuring out a post-Gordon Hayward direction for the Utah Jazz. As we approach Christmas, Mitchell looks like their guiding star.
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