SALT LAKE CITY — This year’s playoffs will be different. Banners aren’t going up across downtown Salt Lake City; block parties aren’t being planned outside Vivint Arena; the famous rapturous crowds will be sitting at home (or at work — morning start times are just another odd thing about the postseason).
And the Utah Jazz enter Game 1 against Denver (Monday 11:30 a.m., ESPN) a different team than they were leading into the long pandemic hiatus. Some of that was forced upon them when it was announced that Bojan Bogdanovic would undergo season-ending surgery. And some was a choice as Quin Snyder and staff used the four-month break to determine what they had done right and — maybe more importantly — what they had done wrong this season.
Utah didn't come to Orlando in search of an entirely new identity, but it was looking to reshape one.
The most obvious example: 3-point shooting. In the 60-plus games before the coronavirus halted play, the Jazz were 12th in the NBA in 3-pointers attempted. In the bubble, they are second, firing 42 attempts per game — eight more than they had averaged over the rest of the season. Over the last five games — a stretch where the Jazz have found their shooting touch, hitting on 45% of their long-range attempts — that number has jumped to nearly 46.
“There’s been a real emphasis for us not being tentative shooting the ball,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “We’ve shot the ball over the course of the year, but felt, given our size and our speed, that those were the things that we could do more of.”
The Jazz are small (Snyder preferred the term "quick") so to help offset some of the size disadvantages, especially against a Denver team featuring Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee, Snyder is nearly giving everyone the green light.
The Jazz head coach has always encouraged his players to shoot — but this is different. He wants the shots to come quicker in the shot clock and he wants his team to shoot them more off the bounce, In short, he feels if the Jazz are going to be successful in the playoffs, it’s going to be because of 3-ball.
“When we say we’re evolving and molding to fit — be it our personnel or things we’ve learned about how we how we play, what we want to do better, what we want to do more of — we’ve had a group that’s really receptive,” Snyder said. “And you’re lucky as a coach to have that. They embrace what we give them, and sometimes they modify what we give them, which is great, and make it better.”
Coincidentally enough, it was against Denver last week where Snyder thought his team kind of came into its new identity. They shot 55 3-point shots, making 22 of them (both franchise records), in a double-overtime loss. The Jazz may have lost that game, but it showed how they may just have to play to compete with the Nuggets.
“Since the early part of the year we haven't been in a competitive game like that with one of the best teams in the league,” Snyder said following the game. “For us to play without Bojan and kind of find ourselves. That's something we've talked about, our group really finding their own identity. It is almost like another season.”
And if Denver's bubble defense follows the Nuggets int the bubble, the Jazz might have even more incentive to keep on firing from deep.
Since the restart the Denver Nuggets have had the league’s worst defense have allowed opponents to shoot 44.8% from three. That has led to a bubble-worst 121.7 defensive rating.
The Jazz enter the playoffs as the best 3-point shooting team in the NBA at 38%. And only three NBA players have shot better than 44.8% this season. The numbers Denver has given up are absurd.
“I mean a year ago we were the No. 1 3-point defense in the NBA, and right now, it’s almost comical how bad our 3-point defense is,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “So we’ll look at ourselves a little bit, try to figure out why it’s continuing to happen.”
With those shooting numbers, there’s obviously some bad luck involved (not too mention Denver, like most teams in the bubble, hasn’t always been playing to win these games), and the Jazz aren’t banking on that defense continuing when the series begins Monday.
“I don't anticipate them having those struggles come playoff time,” Donovan Mitchell said. “ … I think they'll be locked in and ready to go. I think come playoff time guys will lock in at a different level and a higher level.”
But the Jazz will still get their shots up. Because that's how they think they can win.