Desperate times call for desperate measures. Or at least, that’s how the old adage goes. Both squads played the night before (the Utah Jazz beating the Indiana Pacers, and the Detroit Pistons falling to the Philadelphia 76ers), and are also mired in significant player/coach instability. Being a Michigander, I have a pretty close ear to what’s going on here in Detroit – and it’s exactly the type of thing that would never have been accepted, tolerated, or even thought of under previous regimes. Mutiny averted, and punishments doled out, the Pistons continued to play with a short roster. The Jazz, no stranger to adversity themselves, are still searching for an identity 60 games into the season. Bereft of both stability inducing legendary coach Jerry Sloan and franchise player Deron Williams, this group seemed more like a collection of supporting parts than a Western power. Facing off last night in the Palace of Auburn Hills something had to give.
One-sided recent history:
It’s no surprise that I walked into this arena looking forward to this game. The Jazz have, straight up, handled the Pistons for over a decade. The Jazz win in Utah. The Jazz win in Detroit. They win blowouts. They win in Overtime. Since the year 2000 till now (12 seasons) the Jazz are 18-6 against the Pistons. That’s a winning percentage of 75%. This one-sided history fails to make any sense as the Pistons have been one of the best teams (by both regular season winning percentage, and playoff success) in not just their conference, but in the league as a whole.
Over this stretch, the Jazz have been running things with such no-names as Carlos Arroyo, Milt Palacio, and
Kris Kardashian Kris Humphries. The Pistons? They were rolling over teams with Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace, and Big Ben Wallace. Sure, we’ve had some talented teams as well during that span, but no one would say we were the better team. Yet, the Jazz had not dropped a game to this franchise since March 13th, 2005. John De Lorean was alive back then. (Obscure GM reference so I don’t get deported to Ohio . . .) I thought that this Jazz win streak would persist, until I remembered that we were no longer a highly disciplined group with an established top down power structure; but a group of guys probably heading for the lottery this year. We were not the same team anymore. And neither were the Pistons.
Things I kept note of:
1. Newly acquired Devin Harris would make his first start in a Jazz uniform. I took a
great blurry picture of him in a ready stance before the tip off. The recently traded for point guard still elicits bitter sweet memories for me. He’s not a bad player (expect a stat smack down later), but he’s not Deron Williams (N.B. whom was listed as a current Jazz player during some pre-game stats shown in the arena). If anything, this is the inverse of going from Rickey Green to John Stockton. It was great to go from an All-Star to a Hall of Famer, now we know what it’s like to go back down the other side of that mountain. I wanted to see how he ran the team in the half court (particularly on our pet plays that require guards to set screens), and to see if his on ball defense prevented penetration better than the other guys the Jazz have used so far this year in that role.
2. The other recently traded for asset, former New Jersey Net 3rd pick in the draft Derrick Favors, was a virtual unknown to me. I don’t follow college basketball, and did not scout any of the high draft picks before the draft. Having him play for the Nets further made him beyond my interest. It would not be a far stretch to suggest that I’ve followed Andy Rautins’ career with more enthusiasm than that of Favors. Most Draft Picks that go 3rd over-all have to be good, and his pre-draft write-ups seem to indicate that he is pretty good. He showed me something in Indiana, and I wanted to see more of it up close.
3. Beyond the shackles of Jerry Sloan (who played John Stockton, on average, 35 mpg in the twelve Finals games – games that were usually decided by 5 points or less and an extra 2-3 mins might have made a positive difference – and refused to budge on his rotations), I needed to see where and when players were getting playing time. Right now this new team is trying to feel each other out (Diana tweet), and what we see on one night may be completely different than the next. On the second night of a back to back I expected a larger distribution of playing time.
4.Opportunity is knocking right now for unrestricted free agent to be Andrei Kirilenko. For better or for worse, the team is no longer coached by Jerry Sloan, and no longer run by Deron Williams. On the personal level, this stripped down, proverbial slumdog version of Jazz ball, suits one of our players very well. Andrei was an All-Star on a lottery team years ago, and now finds himself in a similar enough situation today. Masha is smart enough to
nag communicate to him the importance of salvaging the last 20 or so games of this contract year. Aside from being an obvious Andrei Homer, I wanted to see how he would play under these less restrictive circumstances.
5.The Al Jefferson Solar System continues to be a pet project for me. Ever since those bygone years when Malone unlocked the secret to the Flex Offense Matrix as not just a scoring, but also a passing bigman I’ve longed to see the evolution of it. Carlos Boozer kept the post passing to cutters, but forgot about the post moves. Jefferson is the opposite, and at times has looked like the Al Jefferson Black Hole, and not a focal point in a cerebral system where players rotate around a central star and thrive. If problems from the first month of the season were going to persist over the course of this year, at least ONE successfully resolved failing would be necessary to call this season worth it. In order to have an upward trajectory going into next season (yes, Amar is talking Next Season already) we need it to be the evolution of Big Al from good player on a bad team to star player on an up and coming one.
The First Quarter:
My companion’s favorite part of the game was the home team player introductions/pyrotechnics. While she would divert part of her attention from the game towards critiquing fashion and eliciting attention from the Pistons’ secondary mascot, I could not keep my mind off the game. If anything, I sorely missed not having a laptop with me, but the internet connection in the arena was far from reliable where I was sitting. The game started off with Austin Daye losing Andrei Kirilenko on back door cuts and the Russian slammed it down home as politely as possible. The first quarter was riddled with dunks for both teams. Very quiet dunks which failed to resonate as the arena was mostly empty at this point in time. While the Jazz were picking apart the Pistons (nine of the first ten baskets were assisted), the Pistons were crashing the glass and keeping pace with our team. I knew that the activity of the Pistons (and the tendency of their guards – especially Ben Gordon – to shoot a lot of long jumpers) would mean that a large part of the fight would be fought on our defense glass.
Devin Harris looked a lot more comfortable in this game than last night in Indiana. While I think a scoring point isn’t what our team needs, his instincts are to shoot it – as evidenced by what he did on a 3 on 1 break in the second half. He finished the quarter with four assists, which surprised me; but his shot looked off in this game. Rookie Derrick Favors entered in the game for Al around the 3:30 mark, and looks to be the first big off the bench moving forward. He missed a 4 foot bunny, and both free throws, but other than that, looked immediately more useful than Franciso Elson or Ukrainian Homeboy Kyrylo Fesenko.
Fiesty Raja Bell picked up two quick fouls in this quarter and left the floor and went directly to the locker room. I don’t know what that was about, so if someone wants to tell me what the Jazz feed said in the comments that was great. Instead of bringing in C.J. Miles, Coach Ty brought in Ronnie Price instead – who immediately passed the ball to Rodney Stuckey for an open court layup. Because Stuckey was on the other team, though, this positive playmaking contribution hurt the Jazz, and was called a steal. Maybe the matchups were far from perfect, but leaving Price in the game for over 50% of the first quarter instead of trying to get C.J. in the game early (and have him have a chance to touch the ball) seems like a mistake to me. I’m not a head coach, but putting C.J. in the game with only 40 seconds remaining sounds like something that makes little sense when he’s not a rookie anymore.
The Jazz were doing solid things with Al, Andrei, and Paul Millsap on the floor. You could call this the odd-ball lineup of those old Andrei, Carlos, and Mehmet Okur days . . . actually, this lineup is way more traditional than that one. On the Pistons side of the ball, they made their living by outworking the Jazz for loose balls; second and third chance points; and dribble penetration. Seven of the Pistons’ baskets were either layups or tip ins. They only hit one three though and the Jazz won the quarter by the slimmest of margins.
The Second Quarter:
The lineups for both teams changed as this quarter started. The Jazz went with the Swarm 3.1 (Francisco Elson, Derrick Favors, C.J. Miles, Ronnie Price, and Earl Watson), while the Pistons countered with the nearly ultimate Jazz killer squad of two killer three point shooters; a speedy guard who can drive; a utility man; and a guy who crashes the glass and plays 1980’s style basketball. It wasn’t a surprise to see the Jazz give up the lead as dribble penetration and poor pick and roll defense left their best shooters open from deep. The Pistons went perfect from deep in this quarter while the Jazz semi-monthly bricklaying festival took place. Oh, and the Pistons continued to get a lot of 2nd and 3rd chance opportunities off of bad team rebounding by the Jazz.
It was the Favors show for a while, as he was the only Jazz player to be able to put the round orange thing into the flat hoop thing for a while. (C.J. even missed a technical free throw during this stretch) Ben Gordon was giving C.J. all kinds of trouble on offense; and as a team, our ball handlers went out of their mind during this game. By the time Ty went back to a lineup comprised mostly of starters the Jazz were already down by 8 after winning the previous quarter. Raja Bell finally returned from his ‘time out’ and the Jazz deficit was only 1 point, but a slew of botched plays (6 turnovers in as many minutes) meant that the Jazz would be finishing this quarter, and the half, behind. Raja did come on strong, nailing three shots in a row, grabbing a board, and taking a charge as the quarter waned. Big Al, Andrei, and Millsap all continued their work while the Pistons took advantage of our over-all sloppy play. In a way, the Jazz are now in pre-season mode again, and it looks like it.
The Jazz were getting their work done by running the offense (irony of ironies that this is still how we score after losing the only guy on the team who knows the plays), and sharing the ball. Obviously this team couldn’t ride on the shoulders of one superb player anymore and would win games, and lose them, as a team. The Pistons were only going play 9 guys this game, and on the second night of a back to back, they were beating the Jazz to all loose balls and making the majority of the hustle plays. The Jazz were countering with expert shot blocking, but as is often the case with going for the block, you leave a back door open for an offensive player to sneak in there and get the rebound. One night after daring a good three point shooting team to shoot it (the Pacers), the Jazz were doing the same thing against the Pistons. You can get away with a good team shooting poorly once in a while, but the three point barrage that I was watching up close was either a product of carelessness or the law of averages. Still, the Jazz three point shooting defense has dropped each month this season. We used to be capable at defending the three, now, now we’re not even defending the line anymore.
The Third Quarter:
I can imagine that at halftime the Jazz coaches were better able to fire up the Jazz team than the Pistons crew did. The Jazz, down in this game, were still striving towards winning games and playing together as a team. The Pistons are now a bigger joke than the Cleveland Cavaliers right now – despite having a way better record. The Jazz clawed their way back into this game by playing team defense and never giving up, even when the Pistons would go on a run. The Jazz eventually took the lead again off of a Devin Harris three pointer, his second of the quarter (and here I was thinking that we’d be missing Deron’s range #TSF). The quarter became a back and forth of two teams with opposing styles and opposing successes.
Utah assisted in 9 of 11 baskets during this quarter and continued to attempt to run a type of offense. (But you could tell it was far from crisp, and only the simple plays were being run – maybe this benefitted all the new guys because these were the plays where they looked less confused?) The Pistons, on the other hand, continued to have the ‘all or nothing’ game plan of either three pointers or layups. Both teams were playing a sloppy game, the Jazz were turning the ball over too much, and failing the guard the three point line (though the Pistons cooled off in this quarter only going 2-4 from there in the third). These missed opportunities and open shots would come to haunt the team in the fourth. The Jazz finished the quarter ahead, but I felt like they missed out on a great opportunity with 6 seconds left, and a chance to build a margin. (As they scored at 30 seconds, got a stop, and the ball back, and would start the 4th with the ball)
The Final Quarter:
I was feeling good about how things were going. A few false starts at the beginning of the quarter went by, but the Jazz got their offense clicking first. The Jazz defense still looked very poor, but they were making their shots. A C.J. three, and dunk later, put the Jazz up by 5 with 9 minutes to play and workhorse Millsap yet to check back in (who was quietly having a great game). Kue took a time out for the home team and attempted to quell the building momentum. Ben Gordon got back in the game, and immediately I felt much less secure with our position in this game.
The Jazz even increased the margin to 95-88 a minute later, but I knew that Gordon (who has career averages of 19.1 ppg against us going into this game) would find a way to spoil my night. A made three pointer, followed by a steal, and then a dunk later (all in a row) brought the fans to their feet. A failed possession that produced a Ronnie Price missed three (there are bad shots, and then there are Ronnie Price shots) resulted in the Pistons getting the ball back again. Austin Daye then trained a three and erased a lead that took minutes to build in a matter of seconds.
The two teams fought a back and forth battle the rest of the way, with no lead greater than 5 points until intentional foul time. It’s hard to pin this loss solely upon Gordon re-entering the game in the 4th and, especially when the Jazz had a three point lead with 2:41 left to play; however, I found that his spectacular sequence was the turning point. Gordon is a volume shooter, and he shot poorly in the game (38 fg%), but in the fourth quarter he shot 50 fg%, and made all of his free throws. It’s not Jazz basketball for sure, but Gordon has only lost to the Jazz 6 times in his entire career. (Yes, yes, correlation does not lead to causation . . . we know this . . . ) This game was winnable, for sure, but letting the Pistons (a team with good shooters) go 5-6 from deep against us in the 4th quarter makes the task significantly more difficult. Of course, the three point shooting based off of poor penetration defense, or predicated by poor pick and roll defense could have been overcome had the Jazz protected the defensive glass. Three key defensive sequences were marred by the Pistons crashing the glass with impunity. Jerry Sloan said that the guards have to help out on the boards. He wasn’t wrong. Gordon and Stuckey combined for 9 – with 5 of them offensive. Those two guys had more rebounds than four of our guards combined: Devin, Raja, Ronnie, and C.J.
Preventing dribble penetration (layups and threes), keeping the other team off the offensive glass . . . and now a new one: taking care of the ball (other team had 11 steals); in a nutshell, that’s the game boys and girls. Ain’t nothing wrong with our offense, we scored 116 points on the second night of a back to back and shot 59.5 fg% doing it. We got to the line 34 times on the road. We assisted on 37 of 44 total baskets in this game. We even shot 38.5 3pt%. I fail to see why people were clamoring for the Jazz to trade for someone who was a scorer, when our problems are (pun intended) defensive in nature.
Devin Harris had a double double in his 2nd game as a Jazz player (17 and 12, with only 2 turn overs – but he only shot 3/9 fg). Al Jefferson, hot off the heels of a 30 point game, was a rebound shy of 20 and 10. Paul Millsap was a few assists shy of a triple double, and he also blocked 3 shots in this game. Andrei Kirilenko had his second 20+ point game in a row – when was the last time that happened? (Wait, isn’t this the type of thing I usually find out . . . ?) He also was a couple of rebounds and assists shy of a triple double. Even Raja Bell was getting it done from midrange and deep. Our starters played well. And well, they also played a lot. Out of a possible of 240 total minutes, these five guys played 177 minutes. I haven’t seen such a lack of playing time distribution since the Grizzlies were playing in Vancouver.
The Jazz bench was bad, as usual. They scored only 21 points, with 10 of that coming from rookie Derrick Favors (playing in his 2nd game with this team ever). C.J. Miles can make a greater contribution to this team when he plays more than 11 minutes in a game, then again, it’s very rarely that Raja Bell is shooting 67 fg%, and you kind of have to go with the hot hand here. No playing time for Gordon Hayward was surprising, especially after he had a pretty good game last night. Kyrylo Fesenko continues to pick up DNP-CD’s like they are marbles, which are probably something he collects anyway. (And yes, he probably sticks them in his nostrils for amusement)
The Jazz lost, the Pistons won. More than that, instead of being there in person to watch Ty Corbin get his 2nd all-time win as a head coach in the NBA, I saw the Pistons break a multi-year streak of futility. This is far from the sharpest offensive team we’ve fielded and far from the most talented either; but I think the adversity of losing and a distinct change in immediate team goals mean that this team can learn without fear of failure. The consequence is no longer there to try to be a Top 4 team or bust. As a result, we should see the younger guys play more (you know, that whole development thing I’ve been talking about). In Indy our two lotto picks played 15 minutes each. Last night? Only Favors played, and he played 16 strong minutes, while Hayward was accused by my partner in crime of being 12 years old.
The game was fun, and it was competitive – yet sloppy. Both teams scored a lot, but I think you’d look at the roster and expect the Jazz to crack 100 more frequently than the Pistons crack 120 (especially when they are still disciplining their best players). Our defense needs a lot of work. It is training camp all over again. With this pressure off, though, I think it may give us a better chance to more objectively see what we have to work with and actually enjoy and cheer for our team. With Deron and Jerry, losing to the Wizards, Nets, and Sixers is a cause for yelling. Now? A loss to the desperate Pistons isn’t even something I can be upset over.
I am kind of pissed off that Jeff Hornacek and Scott Layden both acted like they didn’t hear me yelling at them before the game so I could take a good picture of them, when they were shooting free throws.
Also you all know now why I don't write more Game Recaps.