The Triple Team: Jazz find defensive identity despite injuries in win over Celtics

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BOSTON — Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz's 107-95 win over the Boston Celtics from's Utah Jazz beat writer, Andy Larsen.

1. The Jazz's defensive effort pulls them to big road win

Before the game, the talk from Jazz head coach Quin Snyder was all about how the Jazz had to play more forcefully on defense, imposing their will and doing more to stifle their opponents, just as they had done for most of last season.

And surprisingly on Friday, everything just clicked to an impressive degree. And that was largely without the services of both Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, both who left the game in the second half with injuries. The Celtics scored just 93 points per 100 possessions for the game.

Especially dominant was the stretch in the second quarter, when the Celtics missed 18 straight field goals at one point, and scored only four points through the first seven and a half minutes.

We'll start lauding the play of Ekpe Udoh. Because the Jazz expected Favors and Gobert to play all of the minutes at the center position, Udoh was assigned to do conditioning work in order to keep in shape during the season. But because the Jazz play in Cleveland on Saturday and go immediately to the airport after the game Friday, that conditioning had to happen before the game.

But instead, with both of the Jazz's centers out due to injury in the first half, Udoh had to play a ton of minutes, 29 in all. And with that, he was consistently an excellent defensive presence, both in the paint and the way he guarded perimeter-oriented Irving-Horford pick and rolls.

"When I come in, the game changes, I'm up on ball screens. That's something I've gotten comfortable with," Udoh said.

And when he did find himself in the paint, he did a great job down low, blocking one shot and changing numerous others with his surprisingly long limbs.

"I was tired, but I was ready," Udoh said. "Adrenaline kicked in, and the opportunity to beat a great team."

No Udohn't 🖐️ — Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) December 16, 2017

Jonas Jerebko deserves a lot of credit too, as he ended up playing backup center when Udoh understandably needed a break. He did play center for the Celtics on occasion over the last three seasons, and I think his knowledge of Al Horford's game helped in those scenarios too. The Celtics tried to use Horford to bully Jerebko in the post, but he was mostly up to the task.

Finally, Donovan Mitchell had, in my opinion, his best defensive game of the season, doing a good job of staying in front of Kyrie Irving.

On this defensive possession Mitchell does so much right. He traps Irving, then goes down low to help, then closes out aggressively but in control, then stays in front of Irving as he tries to drive past, then contests the mid-range shot without fouling. So well done.

One really nice defensive possession for Donovan Mitchell: — Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) December 16, 2017

Ricky Rubio fouled out but played some really solid defense too. And Joe Ingles, Rodney Hood, and Alec Burks deserve props for taking Jayson Tatum (who scored just seven points and was a non-factor throughout) and Jaylen Brown (only six points) out of the rhythm they've been in.

2. Great Jazz guard play

But the Jazz's guards were all pretty excellent on the offensive end, too. The game clearly featured a collective effort to try to rim as much as possible against Boston's defense, which lacks a clear-cut rim protector.

Ricky Rubio is the headliner here; his 22 points led the Jazz's scoring totals. His 10-14 shooting was impressive, but I really liked how frequently he got to the rim, making four out of his five layups.

.@rickyrubio9: 22p/1s/5a/7r 🎥 — Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) December 16, 2017

Remember, one of Rubio's biggest weaknesses was his inability to finish at the rim, but he's gotten smarter and better at taking those shots. He was shooting almost half of the layups that he did last season, but making 60 percent rather than 48 percent of them. That's a big difference.

After the game, Rubio was asked what the biggest thing he's learned from working with Snyder and his coaching staff, and Rubio pointed to his finishing improvement. I'm curious if we see Rubio take more shots inside in the future.

Donovan Mitchell didn't start the game shooting the ball well, going just 3-14 in the game's first three quarters. But despite that, he found a way to impact the game anyway: he had eight assists in those first three quarters. That's really impressive, and again, the kind of maturity you rarely see from rookies.

But in the fourth quarter, he went off. He scored 10 in the fourth, and hit some really impressive shots that sealed the victory for Utah. One of them was a deep three on a mismatch from Steph Curry range, the kind of shot that's not really taking advantage of the situation but is really impressive anyway.

.@spidadmitchell: 17p/9a/6r 🎥 — Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) December 16, 2017

Rodney Hood played well, too, scoring 17 points and hitting four threes. The Jazz relied on his offense with their bench units, and he came through at a pretty efficient rate.

Finally, Joe Ingles was 4-6 from three for 12 points. If I had to guess, I can't imagine any starter in the league has less variance on how many shots they take per game. More often than not, Ingles knocks them down.

3. Gobert and Favors go down

Is there a strict "the Jazz must have three players injured at all times" rule in the NBA's collective bargaining agreement?

As Hood made his return to action on Wednesday night, and Joe Johnson was set to play his first game after missing 21 contests this season, the Jazz finally seemed like they would be relatively healthy (Dante Exum shoulder injury and Raul Neto's concussion notwithstanding).

Welp, that ended quickly! Gobert went down when Favors rolled over on his knee, going for a rebound less than two minutes into the game.

Rudy Gobert suffers what appears to be a knee injury after teammate Derrick Favors falls into his knee. — Hashtag Basketball (@hashBasketball) December 16, 2017

At first, this injury was really scary: Gobert was holding his knee, couldn't get off the floor, and called for the timeout. And after a minute on the ground, even his first steps were really worrying, he wasn't putting any weight on the left knee at all. But as he walked off the court, he continued to put more pressure on the leg.

ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reports that it's likely Gobert has a Grade 1 MCL sprain.

> Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert still needs to undergo an MRI on injured left knee, but early evaluation suggests a Grade 1 MCL sprain, league source tells ESPN. > > — Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) [December 16, 2017](^tfw)

Gobert was in the locker room after the game with his teammates, still in uniform, but moved very gingerly, limping throughout. He told me that he didn't think there was much ligament damage, but it was very, very sore. If that Grade 1 MCL sprain diagnosis holds, expect Gobert to be out from anywhere to two to five weeks, based on the history of previous NBA recoveries from such injuries.

As we investigated that injury, Derrick Favors' left eye was cut in the second quarter, requiring six stitches to repair and keeping him out of the game.

Favors' status for Saturday night's game against the Cavaliers has yet to be decided, according to a source. It seems like the team will see if Favors can see well tomorrow; he'll also undergo another concussion test to make sure he's asymptomatic.

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