Tonight's matchup between the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns should need no introduction or artificial hyping: The verdict of the game could very well decide the fate of the Suns, and interestingly enough, should be determined by which of the two teams best manages to mitigate their rather apparent weaknesses.
The Jazz draw strength from their bigs, but also suffer mightily from their shortcomings. Although Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter are among the steadier influences on the Jazz roster, the core of that group also possesses a considerable defensive problem.
Jefferson in particular continues to be a liability when asked to defend opponents in motion, and it doesn't take a detailed, operational understanding of the Phoenix Suns' offense to know that Steve Nash intends to put Jefferson through pick-and-roll hell.
Utah will undoubtedly attempt to jockey their defensive matchups so that Jefferson isn't completely victimized by Marcin Gortat, but there's only so much that can be done; Jefferson will pose a problem regardless of which man he's asked to cover, and yet the Jazz can't exactly afford to take him off the court—lest they risk considerable damage to their half-court offense and two-way rebounding.
Yet on the other side of the floor, a Suns' defense that ranks 24th in the league in defending the post, per Synergy Sports Technology, will attempt to curtail a post-centric Jazz offense without having Channing Frye (one of Phoenix's best bigs) or Grant Hill (one of the Suns' top help defenders, and a valuable dig-down complement) at their disposal.
Gortat can do credible defensive work in the post against one opponent, but while he guards Jefferson, who checks Millsap? And if Ty Corbin elects to employ that fascinating three-big lineup featuring Jefferson, Millsap and Favors, how do these Suns—scrappy though they may be—manage to check anyone at all?
Both teams have flaws that are glaring enough to lose, and the specific strengths that help to exploit the other's weakness. There's no way around that, but as Zach Lowe mentioned in his preview of this game at SI.com's The Point Forward, the Suns have thus far managed to better navigate their limitations in this particular matchup this season:
The Jazz have done well in the post against Phoenix — 17-of-35, as mentioned above — but the Suns have at least kept things under control there; the Jazz average about 15.5 shots from the post per game, per Synergy Sports, so it’s not as if they have hammered Phoenix more than they do the typical team. Gortat has the length and strength to at least make Jefferson’s life difficult, and Millsap’s back-to-the-basket game has resulted mostly in fadeaways against Frye. (His face-up game is a different story.)
But on possessions when Frye ends up on Jefferson, the Suns should think hard about doubling, especially considering Utah’s lack of outside shooting. Jefferson has toyed with Frye this season, overpowering him and fooling him with pump fakes.
The good news for the Suns: Jefferson likely won't be able to toy with Frye tonight, who is a game-time decision with an injury to his right shoulder. The bad news for the Suns: He'll likely have even more success against an outmatched Jared Dudley, the infinitely dupable Hakim Warrick, or an overextended Robin Lopez.
There's a chance that Frye may play despite his injury, but considering how ineffective he has been in defending the post against Utah this season, a potential return to the lineup would offer little legitimate defensive support.
Still, it's hard to bet on the Jazz, particularly when they've collapsed at odd points throughout the season and have failed to really figure out how to limit the Suns' pick and roll in any capacity. Both of these clubs are playoff-worthy, but fittingly, the team that sees itself slide out of the postseason will likely do so by way of their own shortcomings.
Let the less flawed team win.