Fresh off the biggest win of the season, the Utah Jazz return home to face the NBA’s best team in the league, the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks, who are coming off a big win of their own in Los Angeles against the Lakers, won the last contest against Utah in Milwaukee (114-102). That game happened at the beginning of January and was the beginning of Utah’s point guard-less stretch as they would lose Rubio four minutes into that game and rely upon Donovan Mitchell and Raul Neto at the point.
Looking back at that game, it was a bit of a turning point for Utah. Although they lost that game, they began to find things that worked. Royce O’Neale was 2 for 2 from three and was a positive force off the bench. Since then he’s been a net positive in most of his minutes. Rudy Gobert dominated the paint and guarded Giannis for much of the night. Donovan Mitchell started to find his rhythm from three as he went 6 of 12 for the game. Utah actually led that game going into the 4th quarter only to fall in the fourth quarter due to fatigue with it being their last game on their four game road trip.
Since that game, Utah—then only 20-21—has only lost 5 games and is now 35-26, trailing the 5th place Rockets by 1.5 games and the 4th place Portland Trail Blazers by 2.5 games. The Bucks will be facing a surging Utah Jazz team led by Donovan Mitchell who is averaging 29.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists on 45/42/83 splits since All-Star break. Utah Jazz has come flying out the gate since the break and is only a 1 point 2OT loss from being 4-0 in that stretch.
The Milwaukee Bucks are no slouches since that time as well. Since playing the Jazz the Bucks have only lost three times. Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging 22.5 points, 11.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 0.5 steals, and 2.3 blocks since All-Star break. Eric Bledsoe fresh off a contract extension yesterday is averaging 17.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 6 assists since the break. This team is a buzzsaw.
Luckily for Utah the Bucks are coming off a game in Los Angeles last night. Milwaukee will be on the second night of a back to back and coming to play in the high altitude mountain air. Three out of Milwaukee’s last five losses came on the second end of a back to back. This has the makings of a scheduled loss for Milwaukee, but it won’t come easy for Utah. They are facing the possible NBA Finals Eastern Conference representative, they gotta show up and play as hard as they did against Denver, if not more.
Additionally, Milwaukee is feeling the effects of injuries. Giannis might be out. Malcolm Brogdon is doubtful for tonight’s game. George Hill is day to day. The Jazz may have been gifted a win from the basketball gods if—IF—they don’t play down to their competition which they have done all season long.
Utah might be without Ricky Rubio again tonight so they will be short on possible help for Donovan in the backcourt. That is both a good and bad thing if you’re a Jazz fan. Donovan Mitchell has been playing out of his mind without Rubio. While the workload is brutal for Mitchell with Rubio out, he is a beast without Rubio out there. He’s undefeated when starting at point guard—coincidentally, that means Utah is undefeated when Royce O’Neale starts as well. Before the Denver game, Donovan Mitchell averaged 30.3 points on 47.5% shooting and 40.3% from three when Rubio was out. Against Denver, that trend continued as he scored 24 points on 47.4% shooting and 50% from three. He had 8 rebounds and 5 assists.
When: Saturday, March 2, 2019 • 7:00 PM MT
Where: Vivint Smart Home Arena • Salt Lake City, UT
TV: ATTSN-RM / NBA League Pass
Radio: 97.5 FM | 1280 AM The Zone
Dante Exum — Left Ankle Sprain — OUT
Tony Bradley — Right Knee Surgery — OUT
Ricky Rubio — Hamstring Tightness — Probable
Raul Neto — Hamstring Tightness — OUT
Sterling Brown — Wrist — Day to Day
George Hill — Groin — Day to Day
Donte Divencenzo — Heel — OUT
Giannis Antetokounmpo — Knee — Questionable
Malcolm Brogdon — Heel — Doubtful
Does Rubio start or come off the bench?
If Rubio is out against the Bucks tonight—he’s listed as probable right now—the Bucks won’t get to have a free safety against Utah. That’s a scary thought as the Bucks could hide Giannis on Rubio on the defensive end. That would allow Giannis to get a breather defensively AND allow him to wreck havoc as he spies weakside on every play. Utah would employ this technique with Andrei Kirilenko back in the day, and it could be weaponized against them tonight.
But there’s a way around this. Since it is Rubio’s first game back from injury, Utah could do what they did last time when Rubio was returning from injury and have him come off the bench. He would conceivably play with Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale, Jae Crowder, and Derrick Favors that would punish the Bucks defense if they slouch off as Utah has three shooters ready to fire off a three around him versus only two—Donovan and Joe—if he starts. Rubio is better when he has spot up shooters and a good roll man with passing ability—and Favors is a damn good roll man.
At this point, Snyder has to know that Rubio is a good point guard, but when placed in the backcourt with Donovan, he’s facing a similar situation as Favors paired with Gobert. Snyder can certainly scheme the hell out of his system and get it to work, but there’s an option out there that allows both Rubio and Mitchell to reach higher results if he splits them up a lot more just like he does with Favors and Gobert.
Rudy Gobert guarding the point guard
I know, I know. Giannis isn’t a point guard, but he is Milwaukee’s primary playmaker. Last game with Gobert guarding Giannis most of the time, the Jazz were able to slowdown the Bucks buzzsaw defense. The Bucks rely upon shots at the rim.
The Efficiency Landscape: What Jumps Out? pic.twitter.com/bBv90IMg2f— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) February 25, 2019
Bucks Leading Scorer by Zone, or— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) February 14, 2019
"The Virtues of Khris Middleton" pic.twitter.com/hyhYtT9Mdk
Most of those shots are coming courtesy of Giannis Antetokounmpo. He shoots an insane 71% at the rim. That all changes with Rudy Gobert. Utah also forces tons of teams to be a midrange team. The Bucks have Khris Middleton who can step into that role. So if Rudy Gobert does his job, the next task for Utah tonight will to keep a sharp eye for Khris Middleton in the midrange and watch for Splash Mountain himself, Brook Lopez who will be bringing up trailer and being guarded by a much smaller Jae Crowder or Thabo Sefolosha for much of the game.
If Giannis is out for this game, then HOOOOOOO boy, Utah may have lucked out.