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The Refiner’s Fire of the Utah Jazz’s Nightmarish Schedule

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The Utah Jazz have rediscovered their identity in the fiery crucible of their schedule.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Utah Jazz Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

It seems fitting for the Utah Jazz that they have rediscovered their identity not after a Donovan Mitchell offensive explosion, nor with a Ricky Rubio renaissance, but with a good old fashioned defensive mud pit. The Utah Jazz appear to look a lot more like their squad last year despite Donovan Mitchell’s offensive struggles and Ricky Rubio’s turnover woes. That’s because in the fiery depths of the schedule crucible, Utah has rediscovered their identity: relentless, punishing defense.

Before Utah’s game against Houston, Utah seemed further from their identity than ever. They had just put out a very disappointing effort in Mexico City against Orlando that left the team searching for answers. Much like the loss against Atlanta last season, it made Utah have to look in the mirror.

Against Houston on an international version of a back to back (Utah had two games in between but was returning from Mexico), Utah pushed the red hot Houston Rockets to their limit. The hot shooting Houston Rockets only had a 44.4% eFG% for that game and Utah left the outing with a 97.1 defensive rating. Utah’s offense was still jetlagged, but there was another thing that changed during that game: Utah didn’t quit.

Despite being down 13 points at halftime, Utah battled back and made this a game. Utah was battling. For much of the season Utah had wilted when the lead got to double digits entering the 3rd/4th quarters. Not this game. While this isn’t the fantastical result of last year’s Detroit OT game that served as the a-ha moment for the turnaround last year, it similarly instilled the same lesson for Utah. That lesson being that they have the talent to fight back and stay in games if they hunker down on defense.

By the time Golden State came rolling into town, Utah was emboldened by their rediscovery. Part of that defensive rediscovery has been their perimeter players aren’t putting the full defensive responsibility on Gobert’s giant shoulders. Quin Snyder said after the Warriors game, “It’s much more effective for us if he can make a play where we’ve done a good job as a group defensively prior to him having to make a play.”

With Utah playing better perimeter defense, Rudy Gobert has become the god of defensive end. Andy Larsen of the Salt Lake Tribune had this to say about Rudy Gobert after the Golden State win:

Rudy Gobert has been phenomenal in this stretch. Absolutely phenomenal. Tonight might have been his best of the four games: Gobert ended up with four blocks, but impacted countless other plays everywhere on the court, from the perimeter to the interior with his length and quickness.

Joe Ingles has become Joe Ingles again during this stretch. Ingles had been in a shooting slump and struggling mightily, but no longer. Over the past four games, Ingles is averaging 12 ppg on 37.5% shooting from three and 20.0 ppg on 44.4% shooting from three in wins. His trash talking and YMCA swag is back as well. While there are no metrics to be found on this, anecdotally they feel like they’re at a season high.

There has been an additional wrinkle of Utah’s turnaround as well. Quin Snyder is tightening up his rotation. It wasn’t unusual to see Quin Snyder go 11-12 man deep in his rotation on a nightly basis as he scrambled for anyone who might provide a spark as his bench struggled.

During those dark times, Dante Exum was disappointing, Royce O’Neale was deep in a sophomore slump, Georges Niang looked like the stage was too big for him, Thabo Sefolosha was working his way back into shape, Raul Neto was thrust into backup PG responsibilities as Dante Exum was benched due to his struggles, and Jae Crowder appeared to be shouldering the entire scoring load of the bench unit. It wasn’t a pretty rotation as Snyder threw player after player onto the floor like spaghetti at a wall hoping something would stick.

Quin began to shorten the rotation, but wouldn’t have been able to due so unless a certain maligned lottery pick hadn’t put things together in Houston.

While Utah’s defensive intensity started flickering and showing signs of life as early as the Miami game, Utah’s bench wasn’t reanimated until Houston. In what seems to be Dante Exum’s Fountain of Life, Exum found his rhythm again in Houston. He was a defensive machine which gave him confidence on the other end. The Athletic’s Ben Dowsett even pointed out that Dante has become a new man since his benching.

Thabo Sefolosha began to play up to his defensive abilities. Thabo is yet another long wing player who can play the four and find work in today’s modern NBA. While at the beginning of the year he had the look of a player coming back from injury, in the last two games, Thabo Sefolosha looks a lot better in limited minutes. He has a Net Rating of +/- +15.5 in only 6.6 mpg. Not too shabby.

With Exum gaining his groove and Thabo returning to his pre-injury self, Quin was afforded the luxury of shortening the rotation. Out went the struggling sophomore Royce O’Neale and the undersized Raul Neto, and with those cut minutes Kyle Korver, Jae Crowder, Dante Exum, and Thabo Sefolosha’s roles were enlarged.

Kyle Korver over the past 4 games is averaging almost 20 mpg and averaging 9.5ppg on 36% three point shooting. In the past two wins, it feels as though he can’t miss. The beauty of a Rudy Gobert screen assist has given him a new lease on his 37 year old life.

That additional attention on Kyle Korver seems to have opened up Jae Crowder. Crowder, who before Korver was Utah’s only floor spacer available in the bench unit, is enjoying the time out of the defense’s limelight. While opposing defenses are chasing Korver as he fights through literally every screen imaginable off-ball, Jae Crowder himself is working just as hard off ball, albeit with less pairs of defensive eyes on him. That freedom has allowed Jae to take his game to the next level.

Jae Crowder has been an absolute machine and buzzsaw from the four spot over the past four games. He’s averaging 46.7% from three while taking 7.5 threes a game. His numbers 14.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg, and 1.0 spg are amazing. Likewise when Utah goes to a lineup of Korver, Ingles, and Crowder, Utah has been lighting opponents up.

Utah’s favorite lineup with that premier spacing is one that includes Dante Exum, Kyle Korver, Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder, and Derrick Favors. It has played 13 minutes total but has a Net Rating of 54.5. It has an eFG% of 67.3%. It’s beautiful. The dream of Utah’s bench strength is starting to take shape.

While Utah has found its center as a defensive team and a host of players are finding their offensive rhythm in the midst of the hardest part of the schedule, there are some significant cracks in the armor that must be repaired before Utah can be considered “back”. That would be Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell.

The first, Ricky Rubio, had been struggling mightily offensively (and defensively) until the 2nd half of last night’s game in Portland. So much so that Quin benched Rubio in the 1st half. Before Rubio’s reawakening in the second half going on a scoring blitz, he had been a nightmare shooting. He had been facilitating and getting his teammates good looks, but was shooting atrociously. His turnover woes are still following him, but his turnaround last night is extremely encouraging.

The hope with Rubio is that he has finally found his center and is ready to push Utah to greater heights.

That brings us to the elephant in the room ... Donovan Mitchell.

To say Donovan Mitchell is struggling offensively this season is an understatement. He is still hitting his same markers as last year, but with decreased efficiency. If you label Mitchell a gunner this season, that description unfortunately hits the mark. Andy Larsen had this apt way of putting it:

I was surprised about how nonchalant Mitchell seemed after the [Golden State] game about his performance, saying things like “I’m over it. At the end of the day, I tried my best to take good shots, they just didn’t fall.” (Narrator: they were not good shots.) Last year, Mitchell would have beat himself up over a performance like that. But as he explained it, “I’ve had a whole 90-something games to go through. It’s not like we lost.”

That reaction might have been a show for us media, though, or just legitimate happiness about the win. Mitchell then told us that he’s going back to the Jazz’s practice facility to work on his shot after the game — “What time is it? 10 PM? That’s early.”

Here’s my take: Mitchell can’t play like that for the Jazz to win most of their games. I’m less concerned about how Mitchell shot the ball on his jumpers and much more concerned about the decisions he made on the court.

While Utah’s floor is dictated by their defensive intensity, their ceiling is determined by Donovan Mitchell’s brilliance. Quin Snyder is not worried about this hiccup in the road of Donovan’s development:

“No. He’s gotta play, he’s got to attack, he’s our guy. You start questioning that … He’s fine,” Snyder said. “We won a game when he didn’t shoot great. And he’s gonna not shoot great at times. But there’s been plenty of games where he’s had a rough night, and the last 6 minutes of the game — bam, bam. He’s capable of doing that for us, and that’s what we want. Myself and everybody’s got confidence in him.”

The difficulty of Donovan Mitchell is Utah is still trying to develop him. Unlike Dante Exum that has a capable point guard there to fill in when he is struggling, there’s no contemporary for Donovan Mitchell. Even when Alec Burks and Rodney Hood were on Utah’s roster, their lows were significantly lower than Mitchell’s lows making Donovan Mitchell’s leash infinite.

Alternatively, Donovan’s offensive gravity—even when he’s in the mightiest throws of struggle—helps get players good looks. The opposing defense will always be paying attention to him. That’s where good decisions on offense come into play. Donovan struggling with making the right read on offensive possessions is hurting him more than a missed shot. This is where the difficulty of the schedule does lend itself to a credible critique. The ups and downs of a rough schedule will wreak more havoc with a young player than a veteran.

The hope is Donovan can snap out of it. Last year, Donovan overachieved during the rough schedule because defenses hadn’t full adapted their game plans to him as they were evaluating whether his November/December brilliance was a flash in the pan. Now they don’t give him the ability to get in a groove. With a schedule built with few bunny hills, Donovan is getting pummeled by the moguls on this black diamond run.

That doesn’t mean that Utah shouldn’t be concerned. Snyder and company has to be acutely aware and vigilant that Mitchell doesn’t fall into bad habits in this stretch. Over the past four games, Mitchell is shooting 27.8% from the field and a putrid 21.4% from three. He’s still rebounding and playing great defense which shows in the box score as he’s only a +/- -1.5 in losses.

There is some good news ... and this is hugely important for perspective ... most high scoring rookies don’t increase in efficiency in their second season. It’s truly a mixed bag.

Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Kyrie Irving saw their eFG% drop. Michael Jordan saw his eFG% drop by 5%. Michael Jordan saw his FTAr drop as did Magic Johnson, Vince Carter, and Isiah Thomas. That’s what happens when your usage rate increases in your sophomore season while defenses are much wiser to you.

Should Utah be worried about their sophomore this season? Yes, because it limits their winning potential this season.

But should they be worried about their sophomore in the context of his entire career? Hell no. He’s going to be fine and he’s showing a similar dip in efficiency as most high usage scoring guards. He’s fine.

Overall, Utah is trending in the right direction which most assumed they would, but the question wasn’t “if” they turned it around, but “when” they turned it around. If they waited until the schedule threw them a bone, they would have needed a crane to pull them out of the hole they dug for themselves. I wrote back before the Orlando game:

Blaming the schedule seems very in vogue because it’s a great neutral thing to put blame on. It’s not Utah’s fault that they’re losing games. It’s the schedule. It’s not that Utah isn’t improving, it’s just their schedule is increasing in difficult. It’s not the coach’s fault. It’s not the front office’s fault and so on ... and so on ... and so on.

There’s no magic pill coming for Utah in January, no savior, nor Deus Ex Machina—unless that’s through a trade on January 15th. Even then, it could prove to be too little, too late. The schedule can’t save Utah, Utah must save Utah. The Jazz have to dig deep now and turn it around. If they don’t, their season could be over.

The fact that Utah is punching back against the schedule at its most difficult and severe stretch is incredibly encouraging. It’s encouraging for the fans, the front office, and, most importantly, for the players looking for a glimpse of light in the dark tunnel of early season frustration.

No one would have anticipated that this would be the time that Utah would turn it around, but neither was Utah’s stretch last year. If Utah grinds out another win—this time against Oklahoma City—Utah would be playing with house money as they face Portland on Christmas day.

The Utah Jazz have truly rediscovered their true identity while in the midst of the refiner’s fire of a nightmarish schedule.