OKLAHOMA CITY — Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz's 107-99 Game 5 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder from KSL.com's Jazz beat writer, Andy Larsen.
1. Anatomy of a comeback
The Jazz had a 25-point lead with 8:34 left in the third quarter after Jae Crowder hit an open three, leading to a Billy Donovan timeout. After that, the Thunder went on an astonishing 61-28 run, coming all the way back to tie the game going into the third quarter and doing enough in the fourth to easily win it.
I think a lot of other commentaries on this game will say something like, "Oklahoma City's stars flipped a switch and willed their team back to victory." Or maybe, "Utah collapsed down the stretch, playing with complacency when they thought the game was theirs."
Some of that might be true. But far more than any mental games, this comeback was decided by real basketball factors that the Jazz struggled to deal with.
I thought Crowder summed it up well: "We didn't make adjustments on the fly, and it cost us the game."
First, after the timeout, the Thunder got much more switchy on the defensive end, just switching every screen one through five. That led to a lot of possessions with Donovan Mitchell attacking either Steven Adams or Alex Abrines. Mitchell went 5-16 during OKC's run from the floor with only one assist. I suppose the good news is that he didn't turn the ball over, but some of the shots he was taking didn't get the offense involved.
Triple Team videos: Donovan Mitchell needs to find an open man here if he's going to run into this much help: pic.twitter.com/mWqSZlV3wn— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) April 26, 2018
Mitchell has been Utah's most reliable switch attacker, but that doesn't always mean shooting the ball. He'll need to kick it out to Jonas Jerebko or lob it to Rudy Gobert (a tougher pass, but a better look) on these sorts of plays.
It's also just hard to take on that large of a role. Joe Ingles didn't ever feel as if he could adequately attack the switches, but he's actually pretty decent at it. Crowder did attack, but made some poor decisions. Ricky Rubio did some attacking, but again, his pull-up isn't the weapon you want to rely on, especially without him being freed up off a screen.
The Jazz might have been better off with Gobert and Derrick Favors more consistently in the game. But because they both picked up four fouls in the third and five fouls in the fourth, neither played heavy minutes. That obviously hurt the Jazz defensively (more on that later), but on the offensive end of the floor as well.
In heavy foul trouble, posting up a player to take advantage of a switch is an even more dangerous plan. One of the most effective ways for a smaller player to defend against a larger one is to take elbows or hip checks and flop, and the way that the Jazz bigs were playing (and the way the game was being officiated), it feels like it could have been very easy for either to pick up their extra foul. Without those players in the game, the Jazz aren't very dangerous on the roll.
In the end, 28 points in 21 minutes of basketball is ugly. But there are reasons to believe that the Jazz will be much more effective attacking that style of defense in Games 6 and 7.
"We’ve played against switching defenses all year. It’s not uncommon in the NBA to see teams switching one through five, and as much as anything we still have to try to get the ball into the paint and attack the rim, and as oftentimes that’ll be for a kickoff for the next guy."
2. Gobert gets in foul trouble
It's not a coincidence that the big Oklahoma City run came after Gobert had to leave the game after picking up his fourth foul with 9:23 left in the third. Here's the foul:
I don't see the contact, but Melo's short jump shot form seems to have tricked the referees.
Of course, it's worth noting that Gobert didn't need to put himself in that situation. Gobert's first two fouls were pretty dumb: going on a wild drive with Corey Brewer standing in the paint, and taking Adams down in transition. Those came back to matter in a big way.
"I've got to be smarter and avoid those first three fouls," Gobert said. "Don't put my team in this position."
From that point on, the Jazz allowed 61 OKC points in 21 minutes of play. It was an up-and-down style of play, but still, that's obviously way too many to give up.
Unsurprisingly, with Gobert out, the Jazz had a tough time guarding the basket. With Gobert in the game, the Jazz had a defensive rating of 89.9, their usual elite standard. With Gobert out, that ballooned to 133.5. Yikes!
The Jazz without Gobert in the game need to do a better job of defending. Favors was in foul trouble too, so you understand this approach, but he probably needs to respond with more toughness than this, rather than just ceding ground to a driving Paul George.
Jazz defense needs to be better without Gobert. Like, this is a great play by PG and Favors is in foul trouble, but this is a lot of ground to cede to George: pic.twitter.com/u3ObjpenG8— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) April 26, 2018
Here, the problem is two-fold: the team doesn't create a wall to stop Westbrook in transition, and Ekpe Udoh doesn't do enough to use his rim-protecting skills here. I understand the importance of boxing out Adams, but this isn't a hard layup attempt without a big man around:
Jazz guards need to build a better wall on Westbrook here, and then Udoh also probably needs to do more. Again, I get it: boxing out Adams is good. But this is a little bit too easy. pic.twitter.com/zWgjsv6qaJ— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) April 26, 2018
Overall, the whole team has to do more to prevent OKC's stars getting to the rim, including and especially if Gobert is out.
3. Make or miss league
I'll let this tweet from Tim Bontemps of The Washington Post start this section:
Even for just a small stretch, that's wildly impressive. The Jazz's defense was lax for much of those, and they need to more consistently contain Russell Westbrook and George from getting to the rim. But even when they did stay outside, the OKC stars made their tough looks. This is a shot Westbrook is capable of making, but it's not a shot you would bet on him making.
This Westbrook shot to tie the game was absolutely massive and also the kind of shot that you don't hate giving up. He was 5-7 from 3 in the last 20 mins. pic.twitter.com/YJGCTXIjrK— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) April 26, 2018
Meanwhile, the Jazz shot 1-16 from 3-point land and 11-36 overall. I went back and watched those 16 shots, and I'd say nine of them were good, catch-and-shoot, open threes that you like as a result of the offense. They were going down in the first half, they didn't in the second.
After the game ended, the locker room was pretty somber. But as the players and coaches met, there was a clear message: this game hurts, but the things that the Jazz did wrong, they can fix. Throughout the season, they've attacked switches well. Gobert will probably be in less foul trouble in Game 6. They can play better containment defense, with or without Gobert. They'll probably hit more open shots, and OKC's stars probably won't be that hot again.
The talk ended with a round of applause, audible from the hall outside. The Jazz will watch the film, learn from the experience, and get better. That's been their motto all season, and they'll need to do it a final time to survive and advance.