As a franchise, the Utah Jazz have consistently performed well in the play-offs but have struggled against the ceiling in the Western Conference. The Jazz were always a play-off team but they could never get to the Finals, they simply did not have enough talent. Utah are unlikely to attract a top-level star who could change their fortunes but Dennis Lindsey decided to double down on the team’s building model, Lindsey made the decision to add two very good players in the form of Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley. Neither player can be considered as stars but the addition of both players make the Jazz starting five stronger. While the Jazz have not been brilliant during the regular season, the team has started to gel and will be a threat in the post-season. Oklahoma City need to take this match-up seriously, Utah are more than good enough to win the series.
The Jazz are a beatable team and the Thunder can win this series, I would even say that a series against Utah presents a good chance for the Thunder to get out of the first round. The Jazz are generally speaking an efficient team on both offence and defence but Utah has weaknesses. There is lack of depth in regard to the big man rotation, outside of Rudy Gobert, Utah do not have a reliable reserve centre. Donovan Mitchell is the lead ball-handler for Utah but he is turnover-prone, the Thunder can use this factor to their advantage. The Jazz’s roster construction has been beneficial in terms of building a solid team year in year out but it has an inherent flaw, Rudy Gobert cannot stay on the floor against smaller lineups. Providing that the Thunder pull the right levers, this series will start to shift in Oklahoma City’s favour.
In previous seasons, the Jazz have tended to take care of the ball well. Quin Snyder’s offensive system is methodical and deliberate, there are few unforced errors. The Jazz have become more careless with the ball this season, Utah are 24th in the league in turnover percentage. The turnover percentage is 15% which means that Utah would turn the ball over fifteen times per one hundred possessions. The unforced errors are not generally a trait associated with good teams. Good teams do not give their opponents easy buckets in transition.
A lot of the turnover issues stem from Donovan Mitchell, the lead guard for the Jazz. Donovan’s usage is the highest on the team and Mitchell carries the majority of the play-making burden. Mitchell is a talented scorer but his ability as a shot creator for others needs further development, Mike Conley was acquired to run the offence but his injury woes have meant that ‘Spida’ has taken on a larger role for the team. It would make sense for Utah to spread the play-making load more evenly, Conley and Ingles are both strong play-makers who make few errors with the possession of the ball. However, Mitchell is the foremost offensive creator whose usage rate of 30.5% is very similar to players like Damian Lillard who is much more productive. Donovan averages 2.7 turnovers per game and his A:TO is on the low side at just 1.56. The numbers indicate Mitchell is not a brilliant passer of the ball and is uncomfortable in his role as a primary distributor, he does not quite have the feel for making reads under pressure.
Going back and watching film of Mitchell when he has played against Oklahoma City, the numbers make a lot of sense. There were points in the film where Donovan was pressured by two defenders and he became hesitant with the ball. During the game, it was evident that Mitchell profiles more as a combo guard rather than a point guard and this needs to be an area that the Thunder attack. Oklahoma City pressuring Mitchell early in the shot clock needs to happen, it will likely result in the Thunder creating a lot of turnovers.
The Thunder have the personnel to set defensive traps and snatch away ill-advised passes. Chris Paul is one of the savviest defenders from the point guard spot over the last ten years. Chris’ reading of the game is impressive, he uses that intelligence to get himself into positions where he can pick off passes. Schroder’s defensive abilities have only really materialised this year but he has been one of the best players at his position in terms of defensive rating. Schroder’s activity and ball pressure has been vital in Dennis being able to slow down taller, bigger guards. I would argue that Schroder is the ideal player to stick on Mitchell, his constant pressure and speed will eventually force Mitchell into mistakes.
Although the Jazz acquired two really good starters in the form of Conley and Bogdanovic, they lost a few key contributors off the bench. Jae Crowder and Kyle Korver were both sent to Memphis as part of the Conley trade. Derrick Favors was allowed to walk so that Utah could afford to bring in Bogdanovic. The Jazz have not been able to find suitable replacements for these players. Joe Ingles and Jordan Clarkson are both pretty solid off the bench but Georges Niang and Tony Bradley are both young and inexperienced. The veterans brought in, Emmanuel Mudiay and Ed Davis, have not performed. Davis has played unevenly all season long and Mudiay has continued as a score-first guard who does not score efficiently enough. The bench is really weak especially compared against the Thunder.
Oklahoma City do not have a brilliant reserve unit by any means but the bench is solid. Dennis Schroder and Nerlens Noel could feasibly start for other teams in the league. Terrance Ferguson is offensively challenged but he is a very good defender on the wing. The Thunder will be able to put points on the board with their bench unit and force Quin Snyder’s hand, he will need to play his starters extended minutes in order to stop the bleeding.
Moreover, the Jazz’s backup big spot is a real issue for Coach Snyder to work with. Ed Davis was supposed to be the solid veteran who can eat minutes in the post-season but it has not worked out that way for Utah. It has meant that Coach Snyder has relied upon Tony Bradley, a centre out of UNC who played sparingly during his first few seasons in the league. Bradley is still maturing as a centre, he will not be ready to play in the play-offs where the intensity cranks up another few notches.
A savvy, experienced point guard like Chris Paul licks his chops at the thought of playing against an inexperienced centre, he will take advantage of the over-eager defence and get himself to the line. The lack of a quality reserve big is a difficult issue for Coach Snyder to work with, he may choose to sacrifice bench unit production so that Gobert can continue to play his current minutes. That choice would mean that the Jazz’s starting unit would have to keep on cutting down the deficits created by the bench unit which is not ideal. The other option would be to slash Bradley’s minutes and play Gobert for extended minutes. For Jazz to remain as a competitive defence, Rudy will need to play around thirty nine minutes a night, more minutes per game than he has averaged throughout his career.
Gobert playing for longer will improve the rim protection and shore up the interior but it does come at a cost for Coach Snyder. Gobert will be fatigued at the end of games and it will be difficult to perform at a high level when he is tired. The closing minutes of a game are highly important, a coach would prefer for his starters to be rested so that final stretch can be attacked with vigour. Gobert being tired may leak points at the end of games.
Rudy Gobert is an excellent defender but he is a flawed player and these flaws have been exploited in previous post-seasons. Gobert is not particularly mobile and is not comfortable when switched onto guard or defending a big who can space the floor out to the three-point line. We have seen Gobert have issues against the Houston Rockets in the past, a roster that was predicated on pace. Gobert’s lack of mobility means that he prefers to defend closer to the rim and is reticent to leave his comfort zone, when Rudy is drawn out of the paint, his arms starts to flap and panic sets in. Gobert is not good at defending in space so it is important for the Thunder to put Gobert in difficult situations.
Oklahoma City can do this by forcing switches out top and letting Chris Paul or Shai dissect Gobert from the mid-range area but there is a more radical option that could be more effective. Billy Donovan has not played five-out at any time during his time as coach of the Thunder, he has simply not had the personnel. Against Utah, he can play five-out with Gallinari playing centre and force Rudy off the floor. Gobert has to guard somebody on the perimeter and his weaknesses will be exposed. The rim protection is gone if he is twenty feet from the rim and Gobert does not do enough offensively to justify minutes on the floor if he is leaking points.
Rudy’s offensive game is highly limited. He does not stretch the floor at all, he cannot create his own shot in the post and Gobert is reliant on team-mates to create looks for him. Gobert’s role in the offence is a roll man in the pick and roll, Gobert uses his size to good effect to score over smaller defenders as he rolls to the rim. Generally, Gobert is an efficient low-usage big man but his touch around the rim is pretty bad, Rudy struggles to control the ball when he receives the pass. Against a talented defender like Steven Adams, you need different looks to beat the defence in order to consistently score buckets. Gobert does not have that complexity in his game, he does not have one unstoppable move he can use if the possession breaks down.
Mitchell/Gobert Pick and Roll:
Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell should be an unstoppable on offence especially in pick and roll sets. Gobert’s size means that he is able to dwarf smaller bigs and finish at the rim effectively, Gobert is one of the most efficient finishers in the league. Mitchell is a talented pick and roll operator, he can go downhill and finish with different looks and he is able to pull up from mid. Mitchell’s passing is not brilliant but it is functional enough to work with Gobert.
However, the reality feels a little different. It is difficult to accurately describe but the pick and roll chemistry feels non-existent and the actions ran between the players are mechanical. On occasion, the Jazz will run a simple pick and roll play without any hand-offs and cuts, it is solely Gobert and Mitchell moving on offence. It is in these situations where the weaknesses are most pronounced, Mitchell primarily focuses on getting his own shot which does mean he misses Gobert at times for easy looks at the rim. The other issue is that Mitchell struggles to put the ball in the right place for Gobert to make an easy catch. The passes can be wayward when pressure is applied to the pick and roll set, this does not benefit Gobert who is not brilliant at holding onto passes.
Oklahoma City can isolate Mitchell in the pick and roll by not switching defenders and pressuring Donovan into mistakes. Providing that the Thunder guard can fight over the screen and allow no respite for Mitchell to make a play for himself or a team-mate, a simple pick and roll becomes much harder. It is so much harder to make a pass when there are hungry, aggressive defenders crowding space. Fighting over the screen is difficult, Rudy Gobert is a talented screener and makes life difficult for the defending guard. It could make sense for the Thunder to use Adams to deny the screen entirely and force Mitchell to isolate.
The Utah Jazz are one of the premier deep shooting teams in the league. As a team, the Jazz shoot 38.3% from the field from outside. This mark is only bettered by the Miami Heat in terms of efficiency and the Jazz rank second in the league in terms of three-point efficiency. This number can be occasionally misleading especially if a team does not take many threes however the Jazz take 34.3 three-point shots per game, a large volume of shots.
A lot of Quin Snyder’s system is designed to create offence on the perimeter, Snyder commonly uses off-ball screens and cuts to free his guys for open deep looks. Snyder’s system is complex but the essential idea behind Snyder’s scheme is East/West movement. East/West movement involves the lead ball-handler moving laterally and off-ball movement going from side to side instead of going towards the rim. This form of offence is done to stretch the opposing defence and create holes that an offence can exploit. The Jazz try to create holes by moving their forwards along cuts or setting off-ball screens to free these players. It is common to see Joe Ingles start on the strong side of the floor and finish in the weak-side corner off a baseline cut. Moreover, Donovan Mitchell has shown a willingness to dish early in the shot clock to a perimeter player for a three-pointer. The fast dish to the corner is unexpected and catches the defence out which generates an open look.
Utah have a trio of capable forwards who can knock down outside looks and make a play with the ball. Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neale are all strong shooters from deep who can be relied on to drain looks steadily and consistently. A moment of separation will allow one of these players to get a shot off or create out of a secondary play-making opportunity. Bogdanovic and Ingles are both comfortable running the offence, they are savvy operators in the pick and roll and can be relied upon to create a good look. O’Neale is not as strong of a play-maker but he is decisive with the ball and makes simple, effective reads. It will be imperative for the Thunder to communicate strongly and pick the right moment to switch defensively.
There are times in a game where a switch does not make sense or the switch cannot be completed effectively. The Thunder defence need to keep talking on defence even if the team falls into a hole defensively, that communication will eventually pay off. Oklahoma City is capable of playing the kind of defence where perimeter-based players do not get easy looks and overloads are created by the opposing team. It will be on the coaching staff to drill team defence relentlessly and use OKC’s athletic ability to good effect.
The Thunder should not be scared if they play the Jazz, the series will be evenly-balanced and Oklahoma City can expect to win a few games against the Jazz. The success will lie in attacking Mitchell defensively and forcing Rudy Gobert off the floor. The Utah Jazz are not a team like the Los Angeles Clippers or Denver Nuggets, they do not have a transcendent MVP-calibre talent who can carry them through series. The Jazz’s best player is a defensive monster who can be rendered useless in the play-offs by small-ball and smart point guards.