Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 112-109 playoff loss to the Memphis Grizzlies from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. Where to begin?
Here’s a list — probably only a partial one — of things that went poorly for the Jazz in that Game 1:
• The turnovers. The offensive execution was the Jazz at their worst. Whether it was open shots or open lanes to the rim, the Jazz passed up opportunities to instead pass the ball to the Grizzlies. Some of these turnovers were just inexplicably bad ball-handling, like this:
You can’t give your opponent that many pick-sixes if you want to win in the playoffs.
• 3-point shooting. The Jazz only made 25% of their threes in the game, which is their second-worst shooting performance of the entire season. Some of that is because it’s the playoffs — closeouts are going to be harder, and Memphis generally defended well. But they also missed a lot of open shots; it’s a different game if they knock them down.
For the first time all season, Jordan Clarkson didn’t make a three. Georges Niang went 1-6 on some really quality looks. Mike Conley missed two threes in the fourth that would have changed the game. And Bojan Bogdanovic hit some big shots, but missed the potential game-tying one.
• Offensive rebounding. The Grizzlies, who are an excellent offensive rebounding team, got 17 offensive rebounds. Valanciunas got six, (he averages about four per game), but I think the more concerning bit is that the other Grizzlies got 11.
This is just too much ball-watching. Rudy Gobert and Valanciunas are going to be battling down low, but then other Jazz players need to jump into the fray to get those second chances.
• The foul trouble. Gobert fouled out for the first time all season, and Mike Conley had five. Gobert only played 25 minutes, and Conley played 33, but sat at some key portions of the game. And yet, the Jazz were a +9 and +11 respectively with those players in.
I think, essentially, that this game was pretty inconsistently refereed — they were calling ticky-tack fouls on Gobert and Conley that just weren’t being called on the other end. It honestly seemed like the referees couldn’t decide if they wanted playoff physicality or not. Ken Mauer, in particular, had a shocker.
Quin Snyder could get some criticism too for sitting those players as much as he did, but it’s hard to really go after him too much given that Gobert did foul out and Conley ended up with his fifth. I think it’s unlikely this happens at other times in the series, but it played a huge role in the game tonight.
So you add all that up, and you might even be a little bit surprised that the Jazz only lost this one by three.
And yet, it’s just an ugly, embarrassing performance at home: you want Game 1 to be a coming-out party, that shows why other teams should be worried. And instead, the Jazz looked very vulnerable.
Now, it’s not the end of the world; see below tweet.
(Reminder that both no. 1 seeds lost Game 1 last season, then won the next 8 combined games by an average of 15 points per contest)
— Zach Kram (@zachkram) May 24, 2021
But the Jazz will need to play better in at least some of those facets to win the series. If not, it’d be an embarrassing first round exit.
2. Jordan Clarkson’s rough game
You look at tonight’s box score, and there’s one player who stands out as having an especially bad game: Jordan Clarkson. Bogdanovic ended up stepping up late, Gobert and Favors both played relatively well, Conley kept the Jazz in it, even if he shot poorly. Royce O’Neale and Georges Niang had tough nights too, but on relatively few shooting attempts.
Clarkson, though, was miserable. What a huge sequence this was: the Jazz get a steal are heading the other way, Miye Oni is open and about to get a dunk, and Clarkson never passes it to him.
The result is a three the other way. You know, maybe you give Clarkson the benefit of the doubt and say he didn’t think he could get the pass through the Memphis long limbs, but then shooting over those long limbs is not a better decision. There were two reasonable options on the play — pass to Oni, or pass to a trailer — and Clarkson chose option C: YOLO.
In general, I just thought there was too much Clarkson YOLO. Here, the Jazz clear out one side to run a Clarkson/Favors pick-and-roll. The Grizzlies help a lot, which means Conley is open for an easy pass, but Clarkson never sees it. Instead, Clarkson attacks the left side, then the baseline, until either losing the ball or trying an insane behind the back bounce pass to nobody.
Again, when Clarkson’s driving, the Grizzlies are essentially guarding three-weak side players with one man. Find the open guy!
You just can’t make these kinds of decisions in the playoffs. Clarkson will shoot better from three, but the Jazz can’t have the turnovers or the such-a-bad-shot-they’re-essentially-turnovers plays from Clarkson.
3. Donovan Mitchell’s situation
This was an insane situation — and just an error in management.
A quick recap: Donovan Mitchell missed the last month of the season with an ankle sprain, one that the Jazz evaluated week-by-week until ruling him out completely. But, throughout the process, Mitchell, his teammates, and even sources on background were relatively clear: they thought he was well on track for a return in Game 1 of the playoffs.
So when Mitchell practiced in the middle of the week, he told reporters that “I feel like I’m ready to play 48 minutes.” We heard really positive things about how he had performed in those practices. Yesterday, Quin Snyder said that he was on track for a return, and the injury report didn’t include him at all, indicating that he would play in Game 1. He wasn’t listed as doubtful, questionable, probable; none of the above. Just — will play.
Then we talked to Mitchell this morning, and it couldn’t have been clearer that he was playing. “I’m ready to go tonight,” Mitchell said. “No pain. I’m excited to get going.” Mitchell said he wasn’t at all worried about the ankle — maybe level of conditioning, but felt he was probably going to be okay there too.
The Jazz ruled him out hours later. The team officially declined to comment when asked why Mitchell wasn’t on the injury report before Sunday.
The team’s players said that they found out around the same time the general public did — and that it came as a surprise.
“It was a big surprise. But I try to stay out of all this — it’s just gonna give me a headache,” Gobert said. “When you wake up from a nap and find out your star player isn’t going to play, it throws you off a little bit.”
When Quin Snyder talked to the media before the game, he acknowledged that Mitchell was frustrated with the decision. He also said, and the team confirmed, that Mitchell hadn’t suffered a setback, but the team’s training staff met and decided that they weren’t comfortable with where he was at.
And then the Jazz lost, and boy, did it ever look like they could use Mitchell. Mitchell didn’t get much rest on that ankle either: standing for nearly the entire game, hopping around the bench area, basically acting as a second coach for the Jazz in street clothes.
I think it’s fair to criticize the team on several fronts.
If there is a possibility that the training staff is going to decide Mitchell can’t play on gameday, that has to be communicated on multiple fronts before gameday.
It has to be communicated to Donovan Mitchell, who is the team’s star player. Upsetting him is a terrible thing to do, and surprising him in this way is unfair, especially after he’d been insisting all week he was going to play. This is a big deal: Kawhi Leonard’s relationship with the San Antonio Spurs soured in large part because of team-player injury disagreements, and the discord there set the franchise back a decade. I’m not saying that will happen, but making Mitchell angry is something the Jazz should take big steps to avoid.
It has to be communicated to Mitchell’s teammates. Like Gobert said, getting that text an hour before they have to drive to the arena will mentally throw the whole team off. They’ve been preparing to play as if they had Mitchell, too. They looked unprepared for the possibility on the court as well.
It has to be communicated to the league, the opposition, the media, and fans via the injury report by NBA rule. Not doing so isn’t fair to the Grizzlies, it isn’t fair to the fans who watch the team, it isn’t fair to gamblers who bet on the game, and so on. There are many good reasons that the injury report exists, and not following the rules about it should be punished. The NBA has fined two teams for injury report violations this season (the Sixers and Raptors), and I expect the Jazz to be the third.
In the end, it’s hard to know how much risk Mitchell was at by playing today. But if he plays in Game 2 (and I think he will, but I’ve obviously been wrong before) it’s hard to imagine that sitting him on for Game 1 was worth all of these negatives — including, but not limited to, an ugly loss.