Kevin O’Conner of The Ringer earned some backlash from Utah Jazz fans after placing the team sixth in his Feb. 8 power rankings. At the time, the Jazz had won 15 of 16 games and were in first place in the Western Conference for the sixth consecutive day. He then earned his way back into fan’s good graces somewhat with a video detailing how the Jazz may very well be for real and a title-contending team.
That video provides a good insight into how Utah is dismantling its opponents on both sides of the ball, but O’Connor’s personal doubt of the Jazz remains. He put forward three questions that he feels need to be answered by Utah lest its season end in another early playoff exit.
Question No. 1 is one that O’Connor isn’t alone in asking: “What happens in a game where perimeter shots aren’t falling?” It’s a valid concern. When so much of a team’s offense comes from jump shots, what is the response on those nights when those shots simply refuse to fall?
It doesn’t matter that Utah currently has four players shooting above 40 percent on threes and seven making north of 37 percent. The Houston Rockets famously missed 27 consecutive threes in the 2018 Western Conference Finals and they put five players on the court that night who shot above league average from deep. The odds that these great shooters would miss 27 straight perimeter shots was 1 in 72,000 per FiveThirtyEight.
No matter how improbable, disaster always finds a way to strike at the worst possible moments.
So can the Jazz win when they aren’t making 3-pointers, which make up 48 percent of their field goal attempts?
Yes. They can. They’ve already done it several times this season and are surprisingly good at it.
The team’s most recent outing against the Miami Heat stands as a testament of Utah’s ability to win without making boatloads of 3-pointers as at halftime of this matchup Utah had made just 3 of 21 threes. Those four 40 percent shooters? A combined 0-for-6 in that first half (Mike Conley, one of the four, wasn’t active). The seven 37 percent shooters (six active) were 1-of-16 in the opening 24 minutes.
And yet, Utah led by five at halftime against the reigning Eastern Conference champions.
The Jazz went on to win by 18 and it wasn’t by some incredible resurgence of 3-point shooting (they went an OK 36 percent in the second half to finish at a season-low 26.1 percent). They won by means other than shooting the opposing side out of the gym.
Saturday’s game isn’t even the only glaring example. The previous Sunday, Feb. 7, Utah shot 31 percent from deep when facing the Indiana Pacers. The Jazz won that game by eight.
On the season, Utah has shot below the current league average from three (about 36.9 percent) in 11 of its games and has won seven of those. Only four other teams have as many wins in below-average shooting games, the Lakers, 76ers, Nuggets and Mavericks.
Most wins when shooting below league average from three
If you take this breakdown and apply it all teams that have averaged 40 3PA per game, Utah is almost in a class of its own. The only other volume 3-point team with a winning record in below-average shooting games in NBA history is the 2017-18 Rockets, the same who were one metric 0-for-27 streak from defeating the peak Warriors and making the NBA Finals.
Win % when shooting below league average from three (Min 40 att/gm)
If for some reason you still aren’t convinced, here’s a simpler trend to throw into the mix: In its last four games Utah has made 32.8 percent of its threes and won all four times by an average of 13.5 points. Its opponents in these matchups consisted of three of the east’s top five teams — Milwaukee, Boston and Indiana — and the aforementioned Heat.
As for how Utah is actually able to win these games, the answer is fairly simple: with defense. The Jazz on the season have allowed foes to shoot 43.8 percent from the field, in the 11 below-average 3-point shooting games, that number drops ever so slightly to 43.6. Mind you that’s including the four losses. In Utah’s seven wins, opponents shot just 41.2 percent. And these aren’t just scrub teams. They held the LA Clippers, currently fourth in team FG%, to nearly 10 percent below their average (48.5 season average to 38.8 in Utah’s win over them) and later the Milwaukee Bucks, currently second FG% to four percent below their average (from 49.3 to 45.7).
Alongside the defensive effort, Utah simply steps it up in other areas. Their 2-point field goal percentage is 57.0 in the seven wins, up from the season average of 53.2.
This is a good time to point out that Rudy Gobert is huge in there games on both ends of the court. His scoring, field goal percentage, rebounding and rim protection numbers all go up in these games were Utah is able to pull off wins against the odds. Of Gobert’s 10 games with at least four blocks, five come in these 11 games where Utah needed that impact the most. Four of his seven highest scoring outputs and four of his highest eight rebounding games also fall among these games.
Obviously the Jazz aren’t invincible in these poor-shooting games. After all, four of Utah’s five losses come in these contests. The defense doesn’t always hold up and Gobert won’t go beast mode every time. It’s inevitable that the Jazz will not only have plenty more below-average shooting nights, but losses in those games. However it’s important to be clear on this point: the Utah Jazz are capable of winning games in multiple ways. They aren’t a team that just jacks up 3-pointers and wins when they are falling. They can win when they aren’t falling too.