This was bound to be an interesting game, as the Utah Jazz were playing without some of their more athletic and versatile guards in Alec Burks and Rodney Hood, and the Phoenix Suns were without their biggest bigman in Alex Len. Why is this interesting? It is because the Jazz have many talented bigmen, and the Suns have many talented guards and wings. So in both cases the team's advantages became even larger on paper. But we've seen on paper advantages to be worthless come game time. What happened in this one? Welllll . . .
Utah started off hot, putting up 7 points before Phoenix even had one. The team was playing a confident, ball control game where players set good screens, made hard cuts, and received crisp passes. For the most part everything in the beginning of the first quarter on offense was around the rim, from cuts, or nice passes off of screens. There were few outside shots, but Dante Exum and Gordon Hayward both hit threes early. The first quarter was pretty much 'all Jazz' until the team started to beat themselves with offensive fouls and/or turn overs. Phoenix Suns players were getting shots, and missing them and that was all fine and dandy until the 3:30 minute mark.
Phoenix has one of the best benches in the league, they are all (save for Isaiah Thomas) Alec Burks to Rodney Hood height, and can switch on defense, drive on offense, and spot up for threes in the half court. They made a game out of it as their defense changed, forcing the Jazz to abandon going inside. While Gordon Hayward was red hot in the first quarter, Marcus Morris finished the quarter blazing, making two threes, going one on one twice and scoring, and getting to the line three times. The Jazz started the first in control, but Phoenix finished it on a 14-2 run, and would lead by one after 12 minutes.
The second quarter, well, my notes are a bunch of numbers and then the word "ugh." Phoenix pushed the lead to five, and Quin Snyder was searching for some sort of answer. Previous Jazz coaches / teams would have let the game get away from them here, but after putting in Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert, and Chris Johnson the team went on a 13-5 run over the next 3:30 minutes to retake the lead. (For the last time in this game) Jeff Hornacek's momma didn't raise no fool, so he took a time out and replaced his "scrambled eggs" lineup with Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, and kept Miles Plumlee in the game and they came back and went on a 17-2 run.
Utah had no answer for Marcus Morris, who at the half had 25 points. How did he do it? It was a mix of shooting in rhythm, when open, in semi-transition situations, or early in the shot clock coupled with going one on one from the Tyrone Corbin zone, from 22 to 16 feet. He was feeling it. He did have a nice inside drive, but for the most part he was taking unguarded jumpers. Sometimes when you are feeling it it's hard to stop it unless you close our hard. Playing him like Hornacek did, as a 3/4, meant that most of the time he was supposed to be guarded by someone who would rather feel like he was supposed to be guarding the paint. There was no good match-up for him tonight for the Jazz, unless, perhaps, Gordon Hayward was put on him -- but his talents were used elsewhere tonight. At the half Morris went 8/11 from the field, and 5/6 from downtown. It wasn't all him, but the Suns knew who had the hot hand and went to him.
Sadly, the Jazz did not come out of the half with any sense of urgency. Losing the first quarter by one looked okay, unless you recognize the Jazz gave up a big run in the last 3 minutes. Losing the second quarter by 11, on the other hand, looked bad. Sure, the Jazz kept Phoenix under 30 in the quarter, and yes other Jazz teams may have given up 35. But this was STILL a game. Utah seemed to come out at half speed, at times, but pulled it together to go on a 12-2 run midway through the quarter, bringing the margin down to 5 points.
Because basketball is a series of runs Phoenix came back, on a 5-0 run, and sadly it looked like that was the best shot the Jazz had. Utah fell in love with taking what the defense game them, and that meant taking a lot of jump shots. If you watch the 1st quarter and the rest of the game you would think they were from different nights where the Jazz played in Phoenix. For the rest of the quarter the somewhat listless Jazz and the Suns held serve. Utah would go on another mini-run, but in the end only make up 7 points in the quarter. That's a lot, but against a team with the firepower of the Suns, getting over the hump could be very difficult.
Before we get into the 4th quarter I want to say that this is an amazing big picture game. Utah used to get HOUSED on the road, in general, but previous Jazz teams would have let this game slip away in the second quarter. Despite taking what the defense game them, and taking a lot of jump shots, this team still fought back and made it a 5 point game going into the final quarter. Rudy Gobert was dunking on guys. The Jazz were passing the ball. If this team stays together and continues to grow they will be eating people's lunch on the regular. Coming back from the brink to be within a stones throw from a West playoff team in their building, without two of the most needed players on a night like this -- guys like Burks and Hood who can guard multiple positions, is great. So I'm not upset with how this game ended at all.
So, the fourth quarter. I think that the Jazz just didn't get the calls they needed on some of the Gordon Hayward drives, but it's not the refs fault. People like Trey Burke and Enes Kanter need to be more reliable with their jump shot. The replacement guards (and Exum) had a lot of trouble finish around the rim all game long. And the Jazz defense, impressive at times, could not handle the Suns' "dribble penetration and kick out" game. Phoenix is built exactly for the offense they run. The Jazz defense isn't built just yet.
The Suns had to work to finish this game, and they did, with a 100-93 final score. The Jazz didn't end it being 5 or more points away, but this is a good loss. The team didn't fold. The team made the other coach HAVE to play his starters a full game in order to win. Sure, Marcus Morris dropped 30+ on the squad, but no one else really wowed you. Bledsoe finished with 15 points, 6 assists, 2 rebounds, and 4 steals. The rest of their starters scored 39 total points, so less than 10 a piece. And Bledsoe, Marcus Morris, and P.J. Tucker combined to go 11/15 from downtown. How likely is that? Hopefully not likely.
Utah had 8 (or more) turn overs in the first half and finished with only 14. Dante Exum, Joe Ingles, and Enes Kanter could only make 18 points amongst them, somewhat disrupting the nice games the other two starters had. Gordon Hayward finished with 24 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, and had a huge jam on Miles Plumlee. Derrick Favors had 20 points, 5 rebounds, 1 assist, 3 steals, and 1 block. Off the bench Rudy Gobert had 14 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 block, and 1 steal.
The injuries have made the Jazz bench, already iffy, into a very unreliable group Trevor Booker isn't playing enough to be a factor because, normally, the Top 3 bigs get it done. Elijah Millsap and whichever NBA-DL SG of the week is on the team do not always display that they belong in the NBA. And well, sadly, Trey Burke is just not consistent enough -- even as the designated hitter role. He went 2/13 in this game, and 1/7 from downtown. While his 5 points weren't enough as the bench scorer, he did manage 3 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocks.
Perhaps the inherent inconsistency of play for this team is a product of having like 7 guys 23 and younger. Is that an excuse or a factor? Ultimately, the Jazz lost by 7, on a night where three guys who aren't known for shooting 73% from downtown did, and the team shot 66.7% from the free throw line. And it was on the road to a West playoff team when two of the guys best suited to defend in this game were out, and Joe Ingles ALSO got hurt in and had to leave the game and not return.
It's rare that you don't get blown out by the Phoenix Suns (1970s, 80s, 90s, 00s, or 10s) when your top three shooting guards can't play. The Jazz manage to avoid that. And get big props for me, as this was their third game in four nights.