The end of the Jazz’s season was coming and almost everyone knew it. A Lakers’ win on Sunday had all but stolen the final playoff spot and the Jazz couldn’t do much to change that.
At the same time, they really didn’t do much to stop anyone this year. This team will go down as an overall weak defensive club, one that, with just a few stops, could have been playing next week. As it is they’ll be vacationing in St. Barts — or perhaps calling a home security company.
When it comes to guarding your stuff, it’s good to be cautious.
Too bad for the Jazz they only occasionally locked the front door.
This might seem a strange assertion, considering the Jazz made only 32 percent of their shots in Wednesday’s season-ending 86-70 loss to Memphis. Defense clearly wasn’t their only problem. But with this Jazz team, scoring wasn’t usually a huge worry. When Al Jefferson is around, points happen.
Yet consistently it became clear that protection wasn’t a strength. There were some good moments, but as many bad ones, in which teams walked down the lane or launched rhythmic 3s, without so much as a hard stare from the Jazz. That’s what happened in the third quarter in Wednesday’s loss. When Mike Conley went unchallenged to the rim, with the Grizzlies up by 12, his easy basket said it all. Moments later Darrell Arthur tipped in a shot, Austin Daye made a 3 and the rout was on.
The Jazz made a decent nice try, but not enough. It’s true Memphis only shot a so-so 41 percent, but the Jazz were even worse. More significantly, they couldn’t stop Zach Randolph (25 points) and had trouble with almost everyone else. Every player on the Grizzlies scored.
The key was Memphis outgunning the Jazz 25-13 in the third quarter.
So it’s time for the Jazz to reshuffle the deck — whether they want to or not. With potentially 10 free agents, next year’s team might look like Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter, Alec Burks, Derrick Favors and the cast of “What’s My Line?” — the ‘50s TV game show where contestants name the mystery guest.
In a lot of ways, it was a painful year for the Jazz. Jerry Sloan, who sat a dozen rows behind the Jazz bench this year, must have hated watching. Although his teams weren’t always the best defensively, they were usually in the top 10 until late in his career. Also, they were under standing orders to plank anyone who went to the rim with impunity. This year’s team ranked 19th in the NBA in defending the paint, 16th in points allowed per game.
In other words, the Jazz weren’t a playoff team and their defense showed it.
For a franchise used to playing in May, it’s a bitter reality. That makes it two misses in the last three seasons.
It’s not like Jazz fans (or management, truthfully) expected greatness from this team. But it’s fair to say there was considerable effort expended. The Jazz won nine of their final 12 games. Defensively, though, the season had little life.
Most nights they couldn’t stop a grandpa with a walker, particularly if he gave a head fake.
There were other factors in missing the playoffs. The lack of a starting point guard for 36 games is one. Inexperience at coaching, especially early in the season, was another. But those could have been overcome with great defense. The Jazz ranked 21st in field goal percentage allowed, 24th in 3-point defense and 21st in 3-point differential. Utah also ranked 23rd in defensive rebounding.
All of those numbers mean the Jazz were bound to finish out of the playoffs on paper, if not on the court.
That doesn’t insinuate nobody at all tried. Gordon Hayward’s work continued to improve as part of his do-everything approach. Derrick Favors was easily the team’s best defender, leading the team in blocks, despite starting only eight games.
But mostly the Jazz were easy to beat to the rim and at the arc. When the time got short, and the opponent had the ball, it usually meant bad news.
Thus in March, they had trouble holding off anyone. They fell in crucial road games to Milwaukee, Cleveland, Chicago and New York. They’d inch ahead and then give an easy one up; build up leads they could never retain. When the Jazz lost to New York at home with three Knicks’ starters out, the writing was on the wall.
So it came down to a game. In order for the Jazz to make the playoffs, they had to win on Wednesday while L.A. needed to lose in the late game. Turned out the suspense was over before it started. At last, the Jazz had found a way to finally make a stop.
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