The Utah Jazz punched their ticket to the playoffs with a win on Tuesday against the Phoenix Suns. They beat the Suns in their typical style, with high scoring and strong rebounding. Now, Al Jefferson and company have a best-of-seven series with the San Antonio Spurs to look forward to.
Some might believe that since the Jazz hold the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, they’ll be knocked out in the first round. All the Spurs have to do is play the tenacious game they've played in the regular season. Perhaps they’ll simply outscore the Jazz the way they’ve run away from other high-scoring teams, like the Suns.
However, the Jazz aren’t just a mediocre team that slipped into the playoffs near the end of the season. They’re a solid shooting team that rebounds and blocks shots in bunches. They have a balanced scoring attack, with four players averaging double figures and no one averaging 20 points per game.
Indeed, the Jazz have weaknesses that can be exploited. Jazz players tend to foul, ranking second in the NBA in personal fouls (21.9 per game). Also, their defense is suspect, allowing 99.1 points per game (seventh worst in the league).
The following is a guide on how to beat the Jazz in the playoffs.
This is fairly simple. A team can beat the Jazz by scoring a ton of points. Despite being a high scoring team, the Jazz do poorly when they give up a high number of points, going 7-22 when they allow over 100 points.
The Jazz aren’t that good defensively. As mentioned in the introduction slide, they allow 99.1 points per game. Also, they allow 106.2 points per 100 possessions (11th worst). Their field-goal defense is subpar, allowing opponents to shoot a breezy 45.3 percent from the field.
Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson are the only impressive defensive players on the team. Millsap grabs 1.8 steals per game and has 2.9 defensive win shares. Jefferson blocks 1.7 shots per game and has 2.9 defensive win shares.
A team can simply attack players on the side opposite Millsap and avoid Jefferson’s long arms. That’s easy enough.
The Jazz do have players with shot-blocking capabilities other than Jefferson. However, Derrick Favors, who averages 1.7 blocks per 36 minutes, only plays 21.4 minutes per game.
Scoring should be plentiful against the Jazz, as long as the team’s players are in rhythm. Soft defense will be supplemented by ample opportunity to reach the free-throw line, as the Jazz allow the third most foul shots in the league (26.3 per game).
The Jazz foul a great deal. Their two biggest culprits are Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors. Both average 3.8 personal fouls per 36 minutes, while Millsap averages 3.5 per game and Favors averages 2.2 per game.
Millsap has seen his fair share of foul trouble. He’s fouled out six times and committed five fouls nine times this season.
By attacking Millsap and Favors’ foul tendencies, opponents can gain an advantage in two ways. Firstly, they can limit each one’s scoring output, and secondly, they can gain a few extra points.
Part of slowing the Jazz’s scoring attack is taking their two highest scorers out of the equation. Jefferson scores 19.3 points per game on 49.3 percent shooting. Millsap scores 16.6 points per game on 49.5 percent from the field.
Opponents need to keep Devin Harris from getting them the ball. One strategy can be to allow a cutting perimeter player to cut between Jefferson and the baseline, as long as that player doesn’t end up with an easy look afterwards.
Another strategy is simply cutting off passing lanes. Let one player cheat off the man he’s guarding to spy the nearby passing lanes. That could prevent an entry feed to one of them.
Containing Jefferson is especially important. Containing both could reasonably bring victory by itself.
Some might not think it would be necessary to pay much attention to a player who came from Butler University. However, Gordon Hayward is a flourishing star in his second year out of the recent Horizon League powerhouse, and he could be a threat.
Hayward is a lean player at 6’8” and 207 pounds who can be a threat inside and out. He averages 12 points per game while shooting 45.6 percent from the field and a decent 34.6 percent from three-point range.
Hayward and Devin Harris are the only two three-point threats for the Jazz. And Hayward's range and athleticism should encourage defenders to stay close to him.
When Hayward gets hot, he lights a fire for the Jazz. When Hayward scores 20 points or more, the Jazz are 8-2.
Opponents can’t underestimate this blossoming small-school product.