DETROIT — This road trip was a difficult one for the Utah Jazz.
Cold cities in mid-December, three games in four nights with the first two coming against the two best defenses in the NBA and the third game on the second night of a back-to-back.
The Jazz didn’t fare well through the first two games, losing to the Milwaukee Bucks and Cleveland Cavaliers. But they seemed to right the ship a little bit on Tuesday night against the Detroit Pistons.
Lauri Markkanen was incredible, hitting 9-of-13 from 3-point range and just carving up the defense for a career-high tying 38 points. Jarred Vanderbilt, Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson and Malik Beasley were all really good and everyone made a concerted effort to move the ball and to keep the space and pace of the game in the Jazz’s favor.
From a bird’s eye view it was a well-played team win with standout performances in all the right places.
But I’d like to zero in on a few of the more peek-behind-the-curtain, interesting and fun details from Tuesday night in Detroit.
Zone, or man?
The Jazz had led the game by as many as 13 points in the first half, but that lead had begun to dwindle away.
Jazz head coach Will Hardy wanted to change things up, get the Pistons to play at a different pace, just cause any sort of disruption, so he had the Jazz playing some zone defense. And it kind of worked. The problem was the Pistons were just hitting shots.
“I thought for the most part our guys were competing and communicating,” Hardy said. “Credit to Detroit, they made some tough shots.”
So, when the Jazz went into the locker room at halftime, leading by just one point, Hardy asked the team if they wanted to continue trying to work in the zone, or if they wanted to go back to playing man-to-man defense.
“They had clearly already had the conversation amongst themselves,” Hardy said of his team. “Because they said ‘man’ in like under a second. I think that’s great for them to take ownership of what they’re most comfortable in. And I thought that they did take ownership on that end and our physicality and intensity and communication on the defensive end in the second half was very good.”
It’s not totally unheard of for a coach to ask the players what they see on the floor and what they think is best in certain situations, but it’s also not a common occurrence.
“It is fairly unique,” Conley said. “There’s some coaches who make the decision, they go out and they don’t ask anybody anything except for maybe the assistants and stuff like that.”
But the Jazz haven’t practiced their zone defense much and they aren’t as comfortable with the rotations as they’d like to be. Conley said he’d rather play zone and the rest of the team echoed that sentiment.
Of course, voicing something with that much enthusiasm requires the players to then back up their decision on the court. They knew that they were going to have to be more physical in getting into the ball and they would have to play really good defense and prove themselves in the second half.
The good news is that the Jazz did just that. They played way better on that end of the floor down the stretch of the game. And that’s a really big deal for a few reasons. One, it gives the players confidence in their ability to kind of raise their own level. Two, it builds trust between Hardy and the players. It also gives the players a concrete example of the humility of Hardy and his willingness to listen.
Hardy, I think, has already done a lot in just a few short months as an NBA head coach to prove that he deserves the job he has, and these little peeks behind the curtain give us a chance to see what the players see in him and why they have played so well for him and bought into what he’s doing. A lot of it has to do with the fact that he’s collaborative and gives the players a lot of autonomy.
Will Hardy: Interim head coach
This is not something that’s game-related, but I think that fans don’t know too much about Hardy and they want to know more about his personality.
It’s taken a little while for Hardy to kind of come out of his shell, at least to the local reporters, but I think that we’re starting to see the real side of him more and more each day.
I’d describe Hardy as incredibly serious and focused and an absolute basketball junkie, as you’d expect from any coach. He wants his players to like him but also knows that it’s important that they respect him, and he does a good job of toeing that line.
But he also has a very loose and jovial side to him. He jokes around with people and goofs off and has a self-deprecating sense of humor.
When he walked into the interview room at Little Caesars Arena on Tuesday night, there was a sign outside that listed the interview times for the night. The sign read, “Jazz Media Availability. Pregame: Interim Head Coach Will Hardy: 5:30 p.m.”
Hardy looked at the posted sign and laughed.
“I know we’ve lost a couple but, damn,” he said, shaking his head and laughing. “Interim head coach?!”
He continued to laugh about the sign after the game and joked that he’s glad he’s still got the job.
Some good Dok minutes
It’s no secret to anyone that Udoka Azubuike has had a turbulent NBA career. Injuries marred his first two seasons and he’s only played in 13 games this year, mostly in garbage time. But there’s been a couple of instances where Hardy has lacked some of the strength that a more traditional, big-bodied center offers, and in those moments he has not hesitated to put Azubuike into the game.
That happened on Tuesday. Jalen Duren and Isaiah Stewart are a very strong frontcourt. I mean that literally. They are absolutely jacked and they play like bruisers. Without Kelly Olynyk (sidelined with a sprained left ankle) and with Walker Kessler starting to get in foul trouble territory, Hardy put Azubuike in for a six-minute stretch.
“I felt we needed a bigger body for those couple of minutes and I thought Dok did a great job,” Hardy said. “He did a great job setting screens, he got J.C. a wide open 3 off the dribble with a great screen up top, he also caught the ball in the middle when they double teamed and skipped it to the corner for a 3.”
He also helped to limit Duren and Stewart from dominating the boards and getting easy putbacks.
Look, there are going to be nights when Azubuike just doesn’t look great on the court and that’s completely understandable considering the limited amount of reps that he gets, but when he has good moments it’s important to shine a light on that.
“Dok works really, really hard and is staying ready,” Hardy said. “Another guy on our team that probably isn’t getting what he wants in terms of minutes and opportunity, but he doesn’t complain. He continues to work every day. And for him to come in and play those minutes in the first half, in a really critical moment of the game, and to play well … I think just shows the growth that Dok is having.”