SALT LAKE CITY — Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz's 104-101 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers from KSL.com's Jazz beat writer, Andy Larsen.
1. Donovan Mitchell on offense, Thabo Sefolosha on defense spearhead Jazz clutch performance
In yet another fantastic LeBron-in-SLC game, Donovan Mitchell took over the game on the offensive end. By scoring 11 points in the fourth quarter and 18 points in the second half, Mitchell kept the Jazz's offense rolling down the stretch of a game against the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions.
The pièce de résistance was Mitchell's driving layup with 35 seconds left in the game. Watch all that happens on this play and how much of it Mitchell has to do himself:
Mitchell pulls the ball back and doesn't want a screen, it only complicates the attack. Instead, he uses an inside-out dribble to get past J.R. Smith on the outside. Where did he learn that move?
"Before I had a left hand, that was the move I used every time to convince people I was going left," Mitchell joked.
Then, he encounters LeBron James in the middle of the paint.
"He just stood there and tried to scare me," Mitchell said. "If he went up, I was going to kick it out, but he never jumped, so it was just finishing through."
LeBron does end up jumping, but I see what Mitchell is saying: James was hoping Mitchell would pass it out. Instead, Mitchell uses James' momentum against him, and ends up just beating James to the rim. I think Sefolosha having his back to Mitchell at the beginning of the drive fooled James a little bit, though only fractionally.
Mitchell was fantastic throughout: 29 points (on 10-17 shooting), six assists, four rebounds, three steals, and a block. Honestly, he should have had several more assists, though his teammates missed layups or open 3-point shots. He also even could have had an additional block on James, had it not been called for a foul late in the fourth quarter.
He really doesn't seem like a rookie, thanks to that knowledge of the moment and the way he's already making some great reads at the end of games. "He's a player. Kid's got a lot of game," James said after the game. "He's not afraid of moment, he just goes out there and plays ball."
But as impactful as Mitchell was on the offensive end, Sefolosha matched him with some really brilliant things on the defensive end. Sefolosha didn't score a ton — 10 points on 11 shots — but he brought really capable defense and fantastic rebounding to the game, while being matched up against James for nearly all of the minutes he was on the floor.
After Mitchell put the Jazz up by three, Sefolosha forced this James miss on the other end to really seal the contest:
Thabo Sefolosha's defense on LBJ with 34-24 seconds left... pic.twitter.com/mUPT8DE5VC— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) December 31, 2017
Sefolosha backpedals, stays in front, and makes James shoot from five feet. That's definitely a makeable shot for James, but that he's shooting from five feet and not closer in is a big deal: James is a 47 percent shooter on shots from exactly five feet since 2010, according to NBA Savant. Within four feet, he shoots 73 percent.
You also really have to credit Sefolosha's rebounding as well. He led the Jazz with 12 rebounds tonight, including two massive ones in the game's final minute. He secured a Dwyane Wade miss with 49 seconds to go, and the play you see above, with 24 seconds left to go. From there, it was a matter of the Jazz playing smart and hitting their free throws.
In the end, James was limited to just nine points (on 3-9 shooting), four rebounds (all defensive), two assists, and four turnovers in the second half tonight. It's easy to see Sefolosha's fingerprints all over that performance.
2. Ricky Rubio's very nice game
The last Jazz player to have a triple-double was Carlos Boozer in December of 2008. In that game, Boozer scored 22 points, had 11 rebounds, and added 10 assists against the Seattle Supersonics. Yes, it was so long ago, it came against a team that no longer exists.
Rubio came close on Saturday, scoring 16 points and adding 10 rebounds and eight assists in 31 minutes on the court. Rubio also played with tremendous fire, bothering the Cavaliers as they tried to get in any of their sets, drawing fouls and generally being a pest throughout.
"I thought Ricky was terrific," Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said. "Ricky was the guy who got us going. I think you could feel his intensity, his activity on the defensive end. He just fought all the time."
That's something that's turned up recently from Rubio. I thought this video from SLCDunk's Taylor Griffin showed off the kind of effort Rubio has been bringing:
"Tonight was a night you saw some things come together for him that he's been really focused on and working on — most importantly, his impact on the game, both as a playmaker and then a defender."
Rubio's play hasn't set the world on fire this year, that's no secret. He's been characteristically bad at shooting and finishing — warts that the Jazz knew they were getting. But what surprised them was his ineffectiveness on the defensive end and his penchant for turnovers, something he just hasn't done in his NBA career. On Saturday night, he avoided all of that.
For what it's worth, his teammates have supported him throughout his ups and downs. The typically short Joe Johnson put it succintly after the game: "He makes us a better team." Now, we'll see if it's truly a page turned for Rubio or just an anomaly.
3. Joe Ingles attacking switches
The key stretch for the Jazz was in opening the second half on a 23-3 run — a big surprise given the Jazz's huge struggles in third quarters this year.
One action played a big part in that run. Over and over again, the Cavaliers would switch pick-and-rolls run by Joe Ingles, confident that Kevin Love would be able to contain "slow-mo Joe" on the perimeter. After all, Love did a tremendous job in the final minute of Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals on Steph Curry, shouldn't he be able to contain Ingles?
I don't know if it was just the lower stakes, or if Love has regressed as a perimeter defender, but Ingles repeatedly burned Love in big ways.
On the first play, Ingles beats Love to the spot, even finishing with his left hand on the right side.
So then the Cavs get scared, and have Jae Crowder help. Next step: easy alley-oop:
Two minutes later, Ingles drove past Love again for another layup. Next possession, the Jazz get a steal and Ingles hits a leaning 3-point shot, putting the Jazz up 11.
While Ingles didn't play a big part at the end, he might have been the biggest factor in turning the game around in the second half.
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