Editor’s note: This story is available to Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.
1. Jazz lock down Trae Young in impressive fashion
The Jazz’s biggest problem in their losses in the last year or so of the young season has been guard defense. So when Trae Young came to town, there was real reason to be concerned — Young averaged 30 points per game last year, and while he’s spreading the ball around a little bit more this year, he’s still averaging 25. So what happens when an irresistible force collides with soft defense?
Apparently, not what you’d expect.
The Jazz were phenomenal against Young defensively on Friday night, allowing him to score only four points on 1-11 shooting. It’s tied for the lowest scoring game of Young’s career — the only other time he had four points was in the second month of his rookie season, playing the Warriors’ vaunted defense.
So what did the Jazz do so well to flip the script? The first thing was personnel — typically, the Jazz have put Royce O’Neale on scoring guards as the first option, but tonight they used Mike Conley straight up — Quin Snyder actually put O’Neale on the much bigger John Collins.
Conley guarded Young with energy throughout the game, denying him the ball at nearly every opportunity, and guarded him 94 feet for much of the game. Conley’s movement patterns, even at age 33, are the closest the Jazz have to Young’s waterbug motion — he does play similarly to Steph Curry at times with the ball in his hands.
What Young doesn’t have that Curry does is the off-ball motion gene. The Hawks don’t have much off-ball stuff for him in their playbook because he’s so responsible for everything their offense does — he is their creative juice. So when you take the ball out of his hands to that degree, he can’t kill you by running off screens and generally causing havoc like Steph can.
Of course, Young has been defended with ball-denial defense before, but I’m not sure it’s happened to this degree in the NBA. The Jazz threw different looks at him, but has he ever just been flat double-teamed 80 feet away from the basket before? Everything was in the playbook for the Jazz.
The other thing that Conley did brilliantly Friday night was defending Young without fouling. He averages nearly 10 free-throws a game, and frequently draws huge frustration from opponents just because he gets so many easy points. Conley sent him to the line once.
“It does help to have played for 14 years,” Conley joked. “Having played for that long, there are guys like Trae that are so crafty and can get to the line really easily. For me, it was kind of guessing those times he would try to do it, and I guessed right tonight.”
Finally, putting O’Neale on Collins meant that both of the men defending Young’s great screening partners were capable defensively. If Collins screened for Young, O’Neale could help in situations like this:
And if Clint Capela screened for him, then Rudy Gobert could help like this:
It’s just really nice all the way around. The Hawks scored only 91 points per 100 possessions tonight despite averaging 113 points per 100 possessions, meaning it was probably the Jazz’s best defensive game of the season.
2. Donovan Mitchell’s shooting
Donovan Mitchell’s been really good in the Jazz’s four game winning streak:
Of particular note is his 3-point numbers there, a combined 19-34 for 55%. That’s obviously really good — probably too good to sustain.
But it’s worth noting what a terrific catch-and-shoot guy Mitchell has been throughout his career. Coming into tonight, he’s been shooting 51% on catch and shoot threes — wow! But last season, he was at 43% on catch-and-shoots, still terrific, and in his first two seasons he shot exactly 40%.
Here’s an idea of how that compares to other shooters around the league.
Mitchell is legitimately great at knocking those shots down. I think it’s reasonable to expect a regression this year — shooting above 50% from deep on catch-and-shoots would be ridiculous, but it’s a big asset in his game.
It’s another thing to consider when you’re deciding Mitchell’s future position with the Jazz, too: is he better on or off the ball? He’s certainly developing as a tremendous on-ball threat, and at the end of close games, he’s definitely going to have it in his hands. But it’s also really nice to have a point guard who can feed Mitchell these kind of shots too, because he’s very efficient at them.
3. The ultimate sign that it’s not your night
To be clear — the Jazz absolutely deserved their win tonight. They were fantastic on both ends, working together as a 5-man unit to stomp all over the Hawks, leading the entire game. It was, in my opinion, their best performance of the season.
But man, I also felt like the Hawks had reason to feel a little snakebit. First of all, there’s that ugly 3-point percentage: 5-28? The Hawks are full of pretty good shooters that just went 0-fer tonight: Young, DeAndre Hunter, John Collins, Kevin Huerter — I mean, the Jazz defended them well, to be sure, but you’d still expect those guys to make at least one of their 14 looks.
Nothing was more deflating than this play, though. The Hawks were still trying their best at this point in the fourth quarter, down 16 but in the midst of an extremely good defensive possession. They ran Miye Oni off the 3-point line and forced this sort of off-balance look, that clanked against the rim.
Except it clanked against the rim so hard it stuck there. A sure-fire Hawks rebound turned into a jumpball at center court. Rudy Gobert won it, got an and-one ten seconds later, and even made the free-throw this time.
On average, there are about 40-50 “wedgies” like this in the 1230 games we normally play in a regular season, but many of them are from tighter angles or closer shots below the rim. This one came from far away, and turned a Hawks transition opportunity into three Utah points.
There are surely more deflating moments in a game, and of course, if a bit of bad luck is going to come to you, you’d want to be in a 16-point game rather than a close one. But it’s a little bit unfortunate the NBA has tried to reduce unnecessary player contact during the pandemic, because after that play, the Hawks would have been justified in needing a hug.