SALT LAKE CITY — Let’s get straight to the point: On paper, the Jazz had no business beating Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoffs going up against three (supposed) future Hall of Famers.
And they had no business beating Houston, by far the best team in the NBA during the regular season, to even their playoff series at 1-1. That they won on the road, without one of their best players, makes the win all the more credible.
How do the Jazz win at this level? The old-fashioned way: team play. You remember that, don’t you?
During the playoff series between the Jazz and Thunder, TV color analyst and former Jazz player Matt Harpring put it best: “It’s refreshing to have a team here in Salt Lake City that plays the right way. OKC is playing old-fashioned isolation basketball, one-on-one.”
The styles of Houston and Oklahoma City compared to Utah could not be more different. The former teams run their offense through one player; Utah’s game runs through every player on the floor, as attested by the six players who scored in double figures in Game 2 Wednesday night.
This makes the Jazz something of a rarity in the NBA, where the offense often starts and stops with a superstar player. Think the Cavs/LeBron James, the Rockets/James Harden, the Thunder/Russell Westbrook.
The NBA is a star- and stat-driven league, and it has fostered this culture with its marketing and the way it rewards players. Total points, instead of efficiency and winning, reap super-max contracts, endorsements and All-Star Game appearances. This tends to drive the one-on-one style of play.
It also renders many of the teams almost un-coachable, because players are pursuing an individual agenda (think of the focus on triple-doubles and double-doubles, win or lose). Un-coachable + personal agenda = isolation basketball. Some teams — Houston, Team LeBron — can get away with it, at least to some extent.
The philosophy of many teams is simple: Give the ball to the star and everybody else get the heck out of the way.
During the regular season, Utah ranked seventh in passes made per game at 318.8; Houston was 30th (last), at 253.8; OKC was 29th at 254.0; and the Cavaliers 26th at 273.5. Utah remains relatively low in assists at 22nd (but not lower than Houston and OKC, at 27th and 29th). That’s because the Jazz don’t pass only when someone is open for a shot (and assist), they pass the ball a lot until they find a good shot.
In usage rate — which measures the percentage of plays that end in a player’s hands, whether on a turnover, shot or free throw — Harden ranks No. 1 at a whopping 36.1, Westbrook third at 33.2, and James fifth at 31.6. Utah’s Donovan Mitchell is 23rd at 28.8, and, tellingly, teammates Alec Burks, Dante Exum and Ricky Rubio are all about 23.
In time of possession — which is the average number of minutes per game that the ball is in a player’s hands — James is second at 9.8, Russell third at 9.3, and Harden fourth at 9.2. Rubio leads the Jazz at 6.7.
Considering that Harden plays an average of 35 minutes per game and only half of that is on offense, that means the ball is in his hands nine out of the 17.5 minutes he is on offense, which doesn’t leave many minutes for his four teammates. He takes 25 percent of the team’s shots.
In defensive efficiency — which reflects shared effort — the Jazz have five players in the top 26 — Royce O’Neale (8th), Rudy Gobert (9th), Exum (11th), Mitchell (20th), Rubio (26th) — and six in the top 41 with Joe Ingles 41st.
Utah, Boston, Philadelphia and San Antonio own the top four spots in team defensive efficiency.
Teams that tend to play as a unit — Boston, Utah, San Antonio, Golden State — tend to overachieve and win even when they lose players to injuries (see the four aforementioned teams). Those are also among the best-coached teams in the league. When you get a team that is well-coached, with players who buy into the system and have talent, you get a super team like the Warriors.
Necessity dictates the Jazz’s team-oriented style of play. Like other teams in small markets, they are unable to sign big-name free agents, which means they have to draft well, develop players and get their players to subordinate their egos and buy into a team effort.
That’s the only way the Jazz can compete, and when they lapse into a more selfish approach they get into trouble, which is exactly what happened when the Thunder were overcoming a 25-point deficit in Game 5 during the first round; the Jazz panicked and abandoned their game plan.
The Jazz may or may not win the series against the Rockets — it would be a huge upset — but one thing is certain: Their only hope is to stick with the style that got them here.