There isn’t a singular reason that the Utah Jazz were bounced out of the second round of the playoffs. You can’t put the blame all on the coaching, or personnel, or execution or on any one player. Doing so would be irresponsible.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t criticisms to be made. There are plenty of things the Jazz didn’t or couldn’t do well. There’s a laundry list of things that went wrong and now is the time to go through that list.
First and foremost we have to acknowledge the disadvantages the Jazz were faced with due to injury and the timing of those injuries.
If we’re looking just at Game 6 of the Jazz’s Western Conference semifinal series against the Los Angeles Clippers, it’s incredible that Donovan Mitchell scored 39 points to go with nine rebounds and nine assists while playing through excruciating pain on an ankle that was never healed after he sprained it on April 16. It’s hard not to imagine what Mitchell would have been able to do for the Jazz had he been healthy and had the same kind of burst and mobility that he usually does.
Not only was Mitchell injured and playing through pain, but the Jazz were without Mike Conley throughout the Clippers series and when he came back to play in Game 6 it was the first time he’d even run on his injured hamstring in two weeks.
“Mike Conley is a hall of famer, I think a hall of famer,” Mitchell said. “Not having him is tough. We saw his impact in the Memphis series.”
Then of course, there was the injury to Rudy Gobert. In the first quarter of Game 6 he fell hard on his tailbone-hip area and suffered a contusion that was bad enough that the team had him get x-rays and imaging done the next morning. Gobert wouldn’t be told that he couldn’t go back into the game, but it was obvious that his movement was limited.
So all three of the Jazz’s All-Stars were hobbled in their elimination game. That’s just bad luck.
But we can go back a little further. Mitchell and Conley’s injuries came at the tail end of the regular season which put a much heavier load on Joe Ingles to finish things off before the playoffs. What if Ingles hadn’t needed to take on primary ball-handling duties for so long? Maybe he wouldn’t have been so fatigued during the playoffs and would have been able to defend at a higher level.
What if Mitchell’s injury hadn’t come so late in the season? If he’d been available for Game 1 against Memphis then maybe a Game 5 against the Grizzlies wouldn’t have been necessary. Maybe then, Conley never reinjures the hamstring and then everything is different. The timing was critical and it created an untenable situation for the Jazz. There are a lot of things to blame for the Jazz’s downfall this year, but key late injuries are at the top of the list.
When hit with injury the Jazz just weren’t deep enough to make up for what they were lacking.
I have great respect for Georges Niang and Miye Oni and the growth that we’ve seen from them over the course of this season, but they weren’t ready to contribute in meaningful ways against the Clippers.
Additionally, without a skilled small-ball five or another strong wing defender, the Jazz were forced into tough situations that weren’t just hard to overcome, but practically impossible. Derrick Favors wasn’t able to keep up with the rotations or the penetration of the Clippers, so when the Jazz go with Gobert they back themselves into a bit of a wall. By team design the Jazz have to rely on Gobert for so much, and he is legitimately a terrific defender, but he can’t do everything.
When the Jazz’s lackluster perimeter defense breaks it requires Gobert to step up and not allow easy buckets but that usually means that there is a shooter open somewhere. The Jazz were unable to recover quick enough to close out those looks. I understand that Gobert gets a ton of criticism for not being able to play against smaller lineups, and sometimes that’s fair. But it’s also difficult for him because of the shortcomings of his teammates on the defensive side. These are issues that need to be addressed by management in the offseason and they are issues that have burned the Jazz in the past and burned the Jazz once again against the Clippers.
The Jazz are better when Gobert is on the floor and Quin Snyder played Gobert just 29 minutes in Game 3 against the Clippers and then 31 minutes in Game 4. Snyder significantly upped Gobert’s minutes in Games 5 and 6, but there is a fair criticism to be made about it taking that long to put more faith in the Defensive Player of the Year.
As said above, the Jazz had problems in rotations and with late recoveries, and while some of that is personnel and by design of the team, some of that is caused by scheme. Sometimes the Jazz purposefully left Terance Mann open choosing rather to focus on the likes of Paul George, and in Game 6 that came back to bite the Jazz pretty hard.
It’s one thing to criticize Gobert for not closing out when he is supposed to, but when he is not closing out because that’s what he’s been asked to do because it’s a part of the game plan, then it’s on the coaching staff.
“The game plan was that it was better to give up Terance Mann 3s rather than Reggie Jackson, PG, and Kawhi — early on — layups,” Gobert said. “Terance did a great job knocking down shots. I thought we tried to adjust and go into full rotation, but the few times when I didn’t come and help, ended up in layups. I just tried to...I trusted the game plan.”
The players are not without fault here too. There were certainly times when every player on the Jazz was guilty of blowing a defensive assignment or making bad decisions on the offensive end.
No one is expecting these players to have perfect games, but the mistakes compounded and they often came in clusters that dug the Jazz into a hole they weren’t able to climb out of. Whether it’s poor effort rebounding from Gobert, Royce O’Neale allowing his man to get into the lane early, the Jazz giving shooters too much room to operate, Jordan Clarkson taking bad shots, Ingles letting the ball stick, or the myriad turnovers by the Jazz, we could write a novel with the ways that the Jazz failed to execute on both sides of the ball.
But even then, all of these failings from the health, personnel, coaching and execution are all so connected. Maybe the Jazz’s personnel would have been able to execute the schemes and find success if it weren’t for the injuries sustained. But the what ifs and the maybes aren’t going to get the Jazz back into the playoffs.
All of these issues contributed to the Jazz losing in the second round of the playoffs and they all need to be addressed.
The Jazz need to find a way to stay healthy and fresh for the postseason, they need to fill in the gaps on the roster where they are lacking, they need to be able to make adjustments when things get tough and the players have to be able to raise their level and execute with more precision when the lights are brightest.