This was a big win for the Utah Jazz. Not just because it was against the defending NBA Champions, the Cleveland Cavaliers. But it was a big game because it was a more clear statement of what this club is capable of after dropping games on the road to the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors, and Memphis Grizzlies. Those three teams appear to be ‘better’ than the Jazz according to national observers. But I think we homer fans believe that if Utah is at their best, there’s no doubt about the Jazz’ superiority.
Last night’s 100-92 win over the champs could prove that.
In the first quarter Utah started off as the inferior team, for sure. LeBron James was collecting desperation fouls by the Jazz — no one able to contain him. He was getting to the line and being fouled hard early and often. Even so, the main problem for the Jazz in the beginning of the game was turn overs and non-aggressive offense. Thankfully the Jazz are a defensive team and were able to get out and run a little at home. Gordon Hayward threw down this jam to cap a 9-2 run midway through the quarter.
My theory for this game was to watch Cleveland’s threes and to try to neutralize everyone else aside from James. But with how Cleveland plays Iso they find a lot of threes for their role players. Utah’s offense wasn’t bad either -- attacking the rim and getting second chance points. Both teams traded leads and ties for much of the first quarter. You could argue that George Hill was being more successful than Kyrie Irving out there early. Part of that could be because Tristan Thompson got in early foul trouble, while Rudy Gobert was still in to change shots. After one it was tied 29-29.
The second quarter was remarkable for the Jazz. And for the Cavs, but just not for the same reasons. Utah held Cleveland to 12 total points — which I discovered this morning was their lowest mark of the season.
The Cavs started off by increasing the pace of play, and diminutive rookie point guard Kahlil Felder was slicing through the transition defense and scoring. (Shelvin Mack was ineffective in checking him.) Utah’s offense was stalling, with Trey Lyles attempting a bunch of open threes -- but he was much better inside the arc than from out. But overall the bench battle between these two units (Key Felder, Kyle Korver, Richard Jefferson, Channing Frye vs. Shelvin Mack, Joe Johnson, Joe Ingles, Trey Lyles) wasn’t one that produced a lot of great basketball.
It was encouraging to see Derrick Favors battle Tristan Thompson successfully. He’s really getting back into form on both ends of the court.
But this second quarter was really a great defensive quarter for the Jazz. Part of it was the Jazz defense being focused. Another part was Cleveland going bonkers from deep but shooting worse than they ever do — they failed to make even ONE three pointer in the second. (Again, before this game started they were #2 in 3PTM, 3PTA, and 3PT%.)
A surprising twist here was Joe Ingles ‘ inspired play on LeBron James. Both coaches went small with about 6 minutes left in the half. And usually when LeBron is playing PF he has the advantage. It didn’t look like it this time around. Utah was up by just 2 when it was LeBron being defended by Ingles. And at the half the Jazz were up by 15. Yeah. Amazing.
Rodney Hood slowly started to get out of his slump, and George Hill and Rudy Gobert were terrors. And with two quarters to play the Jazz were up 56-41.
OF course, the NBA Champs weren’t going to just call it a night. They’d pounce back after half and take the third quarter 25-19, closing the gap quite a bit. Utah came out with this ‘meh’ attitude while Cleveland went out to at least save some face. LeBron James and Tristan Thompson got things working in transition and in the paint — it’s a shame guys like Kevin Love or Kyrie Irving were still holding their team back on this night. But the Cavs whittled the lead down to 8 with 9 minutes left to play in the quarter. Some more sloppy play later, and another turnover that leads to a LeBron layup in transition and Quin Snyder was forced to take the time out. LeBron would then hit a three and moments later jam it home in transition again.
Lead? What lead?
It was 58-57 with 7 minutes to play in the third. Man, a 14-0 run. That’s why they are the champs, and why the Dubs lost when they were up 3-1. (Btw, don’t we have all-stars on this team? They should never go 0-14 at home.) After yet another turn over LeBron (who would have four steals on this night) hoisted up from Steph range and gave his guys the 60-58 lead. Ridiculous.
I guess this is why you tank for the #1 pick.
Utah would retake the lead off of a steal and Hayward fast-break dunk on the other end. Both teams, clearly, were not playing their best. And as the game would progress, they would combine for 34 turn overs and 30 fast break points. The good guys built back the lead thanks to Gordon Hayward answering LeBron’s run by going on a run himself with that dunk and two threes.
Both teams would trade punches to finish the quarter, but Utah would be up 75-66 after three. Who knows where the Jazz would have been without Hayward’s 11 points in that quarter?
In the final frame the Jazz would go up to 89-74 off of a Trey Lyles three with 8:37 left to play, and then things got interesting. Cleveland would put their starters in again for one final push, and push they did. Their 16-7 run would make it only 96-90 with 2:36 left to play in the game. But Quin Snyder’s club would calm down, and hold out for the 100-92 finish. Yeah, that’s right. Utah would score 4 points and Cleveland 2 points over the next 2:36.
Defense won out. Which isn’t a surprise for the Jazz. They held the Cavaliers to .365 .290 .840 shooting on the night. For reals, Cleveland shooting 9/31 is very rare. (Kyrie Irving 2/8, LeBron James 3/6, Kevin Love 2/6, DeAndre Liggins 2/3, Channing Frye 0/3, Iman Shumpert 0/2, Kyle Korver 0/2, Richard Jefferson 0/1) The unusually poor shooting (caused by the Jazz defense in part) and all the turn overs kept Cleveland from really taking control of this game.
Utah would finish with 104.3 ORTG and 95.9 DRTG — which isn’t far off from their season calculated averages of (before tonight’s game) on offense of 108.3 ORTG; but they really ratcheted up the defense from their average of an already stingy 104.6 DRTG.
My pre-game game plan was to let LeBron go LeBron, but stop everyone else. LBJ would finish with 29 / 6 / 5 / 4 with 3 threes. Kyrie would have 20, Kevin and Tristan would both have 12, and no one else would have more than 6. Cleveland would end up with 13 total bench points tonight. As a point of direct comparison, Trey Lyles would have 12 points off the bench by himself.
This was a very strong win for a team that wants to do more than just project strength -- but also flex on other good teams. They did that tonight.