Zach Lowe on Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and the Utah Jazz

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When I last saw the Utah Jazz in person a little over a month ago in Miami, they were surprisingly upbeat for an injury-riddled team about to drop to 16-24 six months after their homegrown star jilted them.

They were frustrated, sure. Rudy Gobert, injured again, overflowed with fidgety, pent-up energy. But there was a weird optimism that they were close — a faith in the process. They were doing the little things right, passing and cutting their way into open 3-pointers. They just needed to make more, get Gobert back, and stabilize after a hellacious December schedule that ranked as the toughest calendar month any team will play this season, per ESPN Stats & Information research. They were never as bad as their record; they are not last season’s Miami Heat.

Not even the most cockeyed among them foresaw this: A rollicking 10-game winning streak that has included victories over Golden State, Toronto, and San Antonio (twice!), and rocketed them back into the playoff race. A month ago, it looked like hot-seat holders in Denver, New Orleans and Portland could relax. The Jazz were done, and the LA Clippers were about to trade their way into the lottery.

Welp. We have a legitimate five-team race for the last three Western Conference playoff spots, and if any of the three teams hanging above that tier — San Antonio, Minnesota, Oklahoma City — gets sloppy or suffers a long-term injury, things could get nuts.

Utah has the easiest remaining schedule among all those teams based on current opponent winning percentage. Fifteen of their remaining 25 games are at home. They have the head-to-head tiebreaker edge over New Orleans, Portland and the Clippers going into their final matchups against all three. (They have already split four games against Denver.) The nerds at 538 give Utah a 90 percent chance to make the playoffs, best among this five-team crew.

Making the playoffs would be an important, affirming step. No one will say it — well, Gobert probably would — but they all want to show Gordon Hayward they are fine without him. And for all the pitying talk in the wake of Hayward’s departure about how the Jazz had done everything they could to convince him, they have won one playoff series since 2010.

In the “make-or-miss league” universe, there is a tendency to minimize streaks as the product of luck, and wait for regression to the mean to ruin everything. There is some of that here, but we shouldn’t minimize the Jazz even knowing a drop-off is coming.

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Utah during the streak has hit 45.6 percent of its open 3s and 48 percent of its wide-open 3s, per NBA.com, best in the league. They shot just 33 percent and 38 percent, respectively, on those same looks over their first 47 games. Ricky Rubio was on fire from everywhere before missing the last two games with hip soreness: 63 percent in the restricted area, 51 percent on midrangers, an absurd 59 percent on non-corner 3s.

We have seen blips like this from Rubio before, and they have all been illusions. He obviously won’t keep shooting like Steph Curry. (The Rubio-Gobert-Derrick Favors trio had sunk to near unplayable levels of sucktitude before this streak, and I’m not sure one nice stretch signals any sort of long-term viability in the modern NBA. Favors is a free agent anyway, still a decent bet to leave.)

But even if the Jazz settle in as a “pretty good” team in Year 1 post-Hayward, that counts as a huge win. It means they have something real to build on in a core of Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles and whoever else is left in two years. It is validation for Quin Snyder’s “advantage basketball” system — and for the broader culture the Dennis Lindsey-Snyder regime has nurtured.

And there have been mini-trends in this streak that should be sustainable, or at least worth monitoring.

• That Utah has done it without Mitchell going bananas every game is encouraging in itself. He has carried them in some games, but Utah also won when Mitchell was out sick in San Antonio — and when he shot 1-of-6, 6-of-21, 4-of-12 and 9-of-28. Mitchell is a star, but the Jazz haven’t needed him to be one every night.

• Ingles, once mocked for looking more like a math teacher than pro basketball player, is in the middle of the best stretch of his life, and now leads the league in 3-point accuracy at 45.7 percent after drilling 44.1 percent last season. His shooting and defense are real, and his playmaking has improved to the level that he functions almost as co-point guard when Rubio or Mitchell is on the bench. (He ran most of the crunch-time offense during Utah’s comeback over the Spurs on Monday.)

A month ago, Ingles appeared to have quaked under a heavier post-Hayward burden. He failed to score more than 10 points in 12 straight games from late December through mid-January, a stretch that included two goose eggs. He still has the worst turnover rate on pick-and-rolls among all ball-handlers.

Defenses know Ingles prefers to dish once he gets into the lane, and they play him that way to an almost comical extreme — laying in wait to intercept passes.

Ingles downloaded that, and finally dared exploit it. He is the league’s best ball-faker outside Manu Ginobili. He knows that if he fakes a pass to Gobert on the pick-and-roll, or even just glances at him, help defenders will lean that way — opening space for layups and floaters Ingles once refused:

(Those jerseys are sooooooo good.)

• Gobert looks incredible — almost faster than he was before tweaking his knee in November. He is flying down the lane, and finishing with both hands. Utah in this streak has actually taken fewer 3s than usual, and more shots at the rim — mitigating their dependence on hot long-range shooting. Gobert is a reason for that. Favors, too. (They are also jacking too many midrange shots.)

Gobert’s presence changes Utah’s entire defense. They play one scheme with him and another without him, and they didn’t have time before now to master either. The Jazz have been the league’s stingiest team over their 10-game streak.

This version of Gobert is a legitimate two-way star — the screen-setting engine of a team that has set almost 500 more on-ball picks than anyone else, per Second Spectrum tracking data derived from NBA Advanced Stats.

• Royce O’Neale can play. He has played Alec Burks right out of a damn job. He is the latest proof that decisiveness turns blah athletes into speedsters, and fringe guys into rotation players. When O’Neale catches the ball, he instantly either drives, shoots, or passes. Even making the wrong choice can be better than holding the ball, or dribbling ponderously to nowhere. Start making the right choice more often, and you’re onto something. O’Neale is onto something.

He is a natural wing defender, and with Jae Crowder on board, Snyder can play a rangy, switchable trio of Crowder, Ingles, and O’Neale between Mitchell and Gobert — with Crowder as a nominal power forward.

• O’Neale and Rubio have injected some much-needed pace. The Jazz are up to 25th in pace, and 12th during the streak. That doesn’t seem like much, but it’s borderline revolutionary for a team that ranked 30th in each of the past three seasons.

The acceleration has mostly come off turnovers, per Cleaning The Glass. Welcome to modernity!

• Crowder already looks more comfortable playing in a motion-heavy system similar to what Brad Stevens runs in Boston. It was weird watching Crowder hesitate with the ball in Cleveland. It made you wonder about his health. Crowder is a so-so athlete with a hard ceiling, but he played with oomph and confidence in Boston. Isaiah Thomas gave Crowder head starts by sucking the defense inside, and then swinging the ball out to Crowder — with a defender rushing at him.

Crowder grew comfortable blowing by those defenders. He did so in predictable straight-line drives, but that’s enough to move the chains along. Utah made an interesting bet flipping Rodney Hood for Crowder. They may have sold low and bought low in the same move. If they can restore Boston Crowder, they have a good rotation guy on a cheap deal through 2020.

• Rubio, confounding as always, is the wild card. Is any of this real? You are almost afraid to ask. We need at least a half season of semi-competent jump-shooting before we begin to contemplate a reality in which Rubio is even an average shooter. He’s stepping into jumpers with more gusto, as if he wants to shoot them, and that is something, at least.

His work getting to the rim, and finishing there, may portend something lasting. Rubio’s shocking lack of touch at the basket has long been almost as damaging as his busted jumper. He rushes in and flings scoop shots as he flies out of bounds. It’s hard to put any touch on the ball that way.

The Jazz have slowed Rubio down. He’s using more hesitation dribbles, changing pace, and keeping the ball higher on layups. He’s even finishing lefty a little more:

He knows defenses expect him to pass, and like Ingles, he’s leveraging that expectation against them by slithering in for layups — without hurrying. Watch Anthony Davis wait for a lob pass that never comes:

This is a miss — and there are still plenty of wild misses — but I’m not sure we’ve ever seen Rubio flash quite this much start-and-stop trickery:

Rubio has been dribbling under the basket and back out the other side more often (“Nashing,” in Snyder parlance), another way to probe the defense as it shifts. He has found Gobert a lot out of that action:

Rubio and Gobert have developed some chemistry after an awkward start. And if Rubio ever convinces defenses he might shoot in the lane — if he ever ensnares them in the grip of uncertainty — he will unlock more passing lanes:

It’s easy to say Rubio’s development doesn’t matter in the long run for Utah. Mitchell is the future. Stick whatever positional designation you’d like on him, he’s going to run the offense as de facto point guard. That marginalizes Rubio.

But to make the playoffs now, Utah needs as many quality guys as it can get. The offense has perked up in the minutes Rubio plays without Mitchell — a dead zone earlier in the season. And remember: Before this season, Rubio’s teams always played better with him on the floor despite his glaring limitations. He was doing something right on both ends. He was at least useful.

The Jazz believe there is something real in those numbers. That’s why they traded for him. If they’re right — if some of the little skills Rubio has refined prove lasting even as his jumper clanks again — the teams just above Utah are in trouble.

Utah was on path for a bunch of 55-win seasons before Hayward bolted. They have more work to do, roster upgrades to make, before they find that path again. They even have talked about recruiting high-level free agents. They need an answer at power forward. They will get creative on the trade market.

A playoff appearance this season, even a quick first-round exit, would show everyone they are starting from a position of strength.



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