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The Triple Team: Jazz play well, but lose to LeBron and Cavs buzzsaw



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CLEVELAND — Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz's 109-100 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers from KSL.com's Utah Jazz beat writer, Andy Larsen.

1. Jazz beat by great team shooting well

As you know, the Cleveland Cavaliers are one of the league's best teams. That's nothing new, of course: they won the title two seasons ago and have made it to the NBA Finals for three consecutive seasons. So the Jazz weren't going to be favored in any iteration of Jazz vs. Cavaliers.

But right now, the Cavs are playing really excellent ball, having won 17 of their last 18 games. LeBron James is having one of the best stretches of his entire career as a 32-year-old. I know Jazz fans get upset when I talk about how good opposing players are, but think about some of these statistics:

  • LeBron has shot 50 percent or better in all but four of his games this season. In three of those four games, he was one shot make away from being at 50 percent.
  • He's now had a triple-double in three out of the last four games. In the game where he didn't have a triple-double, he just put up 25 points on 13 shots, and had 17 (!) assists as a forward.
  • He's having the best 3-point shooting season of his career, at 41 percent.
  • He's also having a real impact on the defensive end this year, with more blocks per game than ever before.
So this is peak LeBron right now, motivated to destroy his opponents. While most of the NBA watched Sixers/Thunder on ESPN, James watched the Jazz play the Boston Celtics on League Pass to learn about his upcoming matchups.

Besides playing one of the best players ever at his highest level, the Jazz also played on a back to back after giving a lot of effort against the Boston Celtics Friday night. They got in at about 3 a.m. last night, and a lot of players were hugely tired after playing in bigger roles.

Oh, and two of the Jazz's starters, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, didn't play due to injury.

So when all of that happens, the only way that the Jazz were going to win this game was through an outlier good shooting game, while hoping the Cavs didn't have their best contest.

They may have actually gotten the former, hitting 50 percent from downtown on 34 attempts. The Jazz actually wanted more, Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said after the game, their target was 35 or more from deep. But the Jazz shouldn't be disappointed with their 17 made 3-point attempts total.

But they didn't get the second part of the equation, as the Cavaliers made 45 percent of their own 3-point looks. Jeff Green, coming into the game a 29 percent 3-point shooter for the season, went 3-3. Cedi Osman, a 31 percent shooter coming in (though on a small sample size), went 2-2. Kyle Korver hit 2-3. The Cavs are 47-4 in the second LeBron James era when they shoot 45 percent or more from 3.

I didn't think the Jazz played bad perimeter defense, and holding the Cavs to only 22 3-point attempts is a major accomplishment, it's their second-lowest total of the season. But it just wasn't a big enough difference for the Jazz to sneak out a win, especially with James taking over down the stretch, scoring 29 points on 15 shots, and adding 11 rebounds and 10 assists.

"The game kind of went the way a lot of Cavaliers games have gone, with LeBron just making plays at the end of the game," Snyder said. "We maybe didn't help as much as we should have, but when we did help, a lot of their guys on the bench made shots. There's not a lot you can do."

So while there was disappointment in the locker room after the loss, there was also a level of understanding. Sure, it hurts to lose, but you can't beat yourself up every time, especially with the deck stacked against you as it was on Saturday night.

2. Rotations a struggle after injuries

Rudy Gobert will miss at least the next two weeks due to a sprained PCL in his left knee, the team announced Saturday afternoon. That would usually mean Derrick Favors would slide over to the center position, just as he did during the Jazz's six-game winning streak against easy competition at home.

But as Favors warmed up before the game, he showed concussion-like symptoms in his workout, which places him in the NBA's concussion protocol. That meant that he couldn't play against the Cavaliers Saturday, and puts his status for the next couple of games against Houston and Oklahoma City in doubt as well.

So Ekpe Udoh, defensive star of Friday night's game, would have to start again. Once again, Udoh did a tremendous job in his suddenly bigger role, and the Jazz actually outscored the Cavaliers with Udoh on the floor, albeit only by one point. He played 33 minutes, scored nine points, and ended up with six blocked shots. He played really, really well.

And then the Jazz used Jonas Jerebko at the center position for the other 15 minutes, and perhaps unsurprisingly, those went less well. Interestingly, it wasn't the defense that cratered when Jerebko was on the floor, it was the offense.

Why? I think it was because the Cavs could keep the Jazz on the perimeter for the most part without Udoh on the floor, just switching everything and forcing (best-case from Utah's perspective) Alec Burks to beat Channing Frye off the dribble. It turned out that Burks couldn't reliably do that tonight, and so the Jazz's offense was 33 points per 100 worse with Jerebko in the game.

With Udoh in the game, he rolled hard to the basket. And while he's not a good finisher inside, the Cavs had to collapse on him somewhat, so it all worked out.

If Favors is out longer, the Jazz could see Tony Bradley play some minutes. The Jazz actually held their plane in Boston on Friday night waiting for Bradley's arrival from the G-League's Salt Lake City Stars. The matchups made no sense for Bradley to get minutes tonight, so he didn't play, but he could be a factor against Oklahoma City.

Thabo Sefolosha isn't out of these games, but the Jazz are trying to minimize his play in general right now. Jazz head coach Quin Snyder described him as "a little banged up," which is why the Jazz didn't play him Friday night against Boston. The Jazz also hoped not to play him against Cleveland, but the injuries to Favors and Gobert changed things in a significant way. He ended up playing 18 minutes on Saturday, hitting four of his six shots for 12 points.

3. Royce O'Neale's 3-point shooting

What a surprising signing by Dennis Lindsey. At first, I think I was concerned that Royce O'Neale was somewhat of a familiarity pickup because he played at Baylor, where Lindsey attended and keeps close ties. But after seeing him on the floor pretty consistently, he's a very quality role player that is going to be in the NBA for a long time.

The biggest thing he has is an NBA-level feel for the game. The Jazz feel comfortable with O'Neale bringing the ball up the court and making decisions in their offense because he's a smart and quick passer that makes good reads. Often, that's the biggest problem for NBA newcomers like O'Neale, but he's stepped in and immediately shown the ability to be a capable part of the offense.

That's why he was actually the Jazz's first substitution tonight off the bench, a role I don't think he imagined when joining the roster as the team's 16th man this summer.

The question mark was the 3-point shot, as he was a career 33 percent 3-point shooter in Europe. But after tonight's 4-5 performance, he's now shooting 38 percent for the season and has shown a capability of consistently hitting the shot. It looks good!

Royce O'Neale stepback 3: pic.twitter.com/p3gxIbvMGw — Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) December 17, 2017

What explains his success? "Just working on my balance, being more fluid, and having more arc," O'Neale said. "And then just going through the repetitions each day."

His friend and teammate and Donovan Mitchell can attest to that work, too. "He's the first one in the gym almost every day. To see his shot starting to fall, it's awesome. Coach has the confidence to put him in, and we all have the confidence for him to make those shots," Mitchell said.

Andy Larsen

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