(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz vs. Boston Celtics, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City, Wednesday March 28, 2018. Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) and Boston Celtics forward Guerschon Yabusele (30).
While Jaylen Brown hit the shot that beat the Jazz on Wednesday night, the 97-94 loss was just as much due to Utah’s frustration with the zone defense.
Rudy Gobert said he used to see a lot of zone in Europe, but hadn’t even really practiced against it at the NBA level. Brad Stevens admitted that the Celtics probably played more zone in the game than “we have in two years.” But whether it was a gimmick or not, it was just enough of a mental hurdle to keep the Jazz scoreless in the final 2:52 of play, evaporating a 6-point lead.
“We just couldn’t find a way,” Gobert said. “Maybe we were thinking too much. We gotta just keep attacking the rim and find the open man.”
Wednesday’s game further splintered a curious distinction for the Jazz: This season, the team has been overwhelmingly dominant in the fourth quarter, but just average when the game is close. At various times, particularly in the last five games, the Jazz have struggled to either close the gap or finish with the lead themselves — a sign of a team that is still finding its way as a crunch-time offense.
While the Jazz are still more likely than not to go to the playoffs, it’s an issue that any team would want to fix before the postseason arrives. Against better competition and games where possessions seem to matter more, the same mistakes could be even more costly.
According to the numbers, the Jazz are the NBA’s second-best team in the fourth quarter this season, only behind the Toronto Raptors. While their fourth-quarter defensive rating is higher than their season average, the Jazz score 110.9 points per 100 possessions in the final period, No. 3 in the league. On average, Utah outscores its opponents 7.3 points per 100 possessions in the fourth quarter.
But if you whittle that down to “clutch” situations (defined in the NBA as a game within five points or less in the final five minutes), the Jazz are merely average. They outscore opponents 3.6 points per 100 possessions, which is just 13th in the league, far behind teams like the Houston Rockets (24.4) or the Philadelphia 76ers (17.2).
To the Jazz’s credit, they’ve played fewer minutes in these situations than most teams, and many of the Utah wins haven’t been particularly close in the final five minutes. But when it is close, the Jazz are just 15-13 — not bad, but not exactly the mark of a dominant fourth-quarter team either.
It’s hard to separate those figures from the player who handles the ball the most in those situations: Donovan Mitchell. From a production standpoint, Mitchell is top 10 in the NBA in points in clutch situations (3.6 ppg) ahead of players like Anthony Davis, Victor Oladipo and Kevin Durant. But the efficiency is up and down: Mitchell makes plays like he did against the Dallas Mavericks, when he scored two needed layups in the final minute-and-a-half. But he also will occasionally turn the ball over (which became the game-tying dunk) and miss a floater (with a minute left) like he did against Boston.
As sensational as Mitchell has been, the inconsistency is a reminder that he’s still a rookie. But the Jazz are willing to roll with those punches this season, especially given that he is the team’s best option.
“You go through it as a coach and beat yourself up and want to help your players and your team as much as you can,” coach Quin Snyder said after the game. “We’ve put the ball in Donovan’s hands late in the game all year. We got some open looks. I thought we were just hesitant when the ball did move, and then the ball stopped a little bit.”
Utah’s last good chance to extend its lead wasn’t actually up to Mitchell, but fell apart due to a miscommunication. The Jazz wanted to run a screen on the back of the zone and skip the ball over the top. Maybe Snyder’s message didn’t get through or maybe the pass wasn’t open, but the play didn’t get run the way the Jazz wanted. It was also telling that Utah did not hit a 3-pointer in the final quarter.
Then again, offense often gets the glaring spotlight in losses like Utah’s most recent one. The team was also frustrated by an inability to get rebounds. While the Jazz won the battle for the game on the glass (45-42), the Celtics managed to get five offensive boards in the fourth quarter.
In a regular season game, that happens and teams are able to move on. But in a playoff series, those kinds of miscues could be much more painful — something the Jazz are keeping in mind going forward.
GRIZZLIES AT JAZZAt Vivint Smart Home ArenaTipoff • Friday, 7 p.m.TV • ATTSNRadio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FMRecords • Jazz 42-33, Grizzlies 21-54Last meeting • Jazz 105, Grizzlies 78 (March 9)About the Grizzlies • After a season-long 19-game losing streak, Memphishas won three of its last seven games, including its last two gamesover Minnesota and Portland. … In the first game of a 10-day contract,MarShon Brooks scored 21 points and was 5 for 5 from 3-point rangeagainst the Trail Blazers. … JaMychal Green is averaging a double-double(10.6 ppg, 10.9 rpg) in the last seven games.About the Jazz • Donovan Mitchell has 41 games in which he has scored 20points or more, tying Damian Lillard and Tyreke Evans for thethird-most among rookies in the last 10 seasons. … The Jazz are third inthe NBA with 8.7 steals per game. … Of Utah’s four home losses sinceJan. 24, only one has been to a team with a losing record (the AtlantaHawks).