Phoenix Suns meet Utah Jazz for 1st time with back-to-back matchups
The Phoenix Suns are joined by the Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies and Utah Jazz in an undisputed split from the rest of the Western Conference at the moment. Utah enters Sunday fourth in the West at 14 games over .500, with the Dallas Mavericks’ six games over .500 next in line. The Denver Nuggets are the only other team above .500.
But we haven’t been able to 100% properly judge how the Suns stack up against their separated competition and that’s going to continue.
All three of the Suns’ meetings thus far with the Warriors saw a significant player out for one of the teams. Ditto for a pair of Memphis matchups.
And now, for the Suns’ home-and-home games against the Jazz on Monday and Wednesday, Utah’s All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell remains in concussion protocol and is at least out for Monday, per The Athletic’s Tony Jones.
All-Star center Rudy Gobert is not playing after suffering a calf strain in the Jazz’s loss to the Warriors on Sunday, per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, and starting point guard Mike Conley (right knee injury maintenance) is also out.
After that trio, there’s a questionable tag on Bojan Bogdanovic (left finger sprain), Joe Ingles (right ankle sprain) and Royce O’Neale (right knee tendonitis). That’s six of the Jazz’s top seven players in minutes on the injury report.
Then there’s Phoenix’s side of the coin, where Deandre Ayton is doubtful because of a right ankle sprain and both Jae Crowder (left wrist contusion) and Cam Payne (right wrist sprain) are out.
With all that aside, it’s still going to be a heck of a two-game swing between two of the best basketball teams in the world.
For two rosters that aren’t all that different compared to last year, the Suns swept this series last season 3-0.
Now, one outing came five games into the year and another was near the end when the Jazz were down their starting backcourt. The game sandwiched by those was a 117-113 overtime thriller the Suns pulled out that featured all 10 of the teams’ starters that came back this year. It was one of the best games of that NBA regular season.
You’ll remember that as a playoff game-esque victory an inexperienced Phoenix team relished getting a chance at before the postseason. That loss dropped the Jazz to 38-13 last season, a pace they haven’t quite been able to keep this year at 30-17.
Utah’s done that 47 games in despite its seven top guys in minutes all playing in at least 40 of those, so it hasn’t quite been the same killer top-seeded Jazz team. That’s because of their more inconsistent defense, which was third in defensive rating last year and is now tied for 11th this year. Perhaps you saw a certain quote from Gobert, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who knows a thing or two about what it takes on that end.
“I watch some of these other teams like the Suns or Warriors, those guys are a step ahead of us in terms of winning habits…Devin Booker is playing his ass off defensively…Guys like that, they buy in,and you can tell they take pride in playing defense”
— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) January 14, 2022
But the reason they are still a huge threat is because their top five offense from last year is even better and has now separated itself as the best in the league.
In a season of shooting percentages and offensive efficiency declining, the Jazz are the only team that has maintained elite numbers from last year.
For the 2020-21 campaign, nine different teams had an offensive rating of at least 114 and seven reached 116. This year, Utah is the lone squad in that pack, at 116.1. The Atlanta Hawks in second sit far back with a 113.2 offensive rating.
Ditto for shooting, where the Jazz’s 59.4 true shooting percentage is the top mark and the only percentage leaguewide that’s at least 58% after 10 groups managed that last season.
There is not much dynamic analysis behind the why. The percentage of its baskets the Jazz assist is tied for the worst in the NBA, 54.5%. Their assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.58 is 25th.
It’s just a lot of shotmaking from players who aren’t shooting below average anywhere under a scheme head coach Quin Snyder has perfected for his specific group eight years into his tenure.
Looking at Cleaning the Glass’ numbers that eliminate heaves and garbage time, the Jazz’s efficiency at the rim and midrange both rank third leaguewide. Most importantly, they are sixth in three-point percentage while taking 43.6% of their shots from there, the most in the league.
Utah is selective about when they shoot around the basket and that clearly benefits them. Looking at perimeter players, none of them take more than 30% of their shots at the rim and Jordan Clarkson’s still fairly average 58% efficiency there is easily the worst percentage, with the others ranging in the mid-60s to 70s.
Bogdanovic, Conley, Clarkson and Mitchell all take more midrange looks and they check in at 42%, 47%, 46% and 47% conversion rates, respectively.
Those numbers range from average to great, and looking at 3s, everyone on the perimeter attempts nearly half or well over half of their shots from there.
Again, the rates they knock ’em down at are average to great. Clarkson’s 33% and Mitchell’s 34% aren’t inspiring but Conley’s 42%, O’Neale’s 41% and Bogdanovic’s 40% are.
Mitchell and Conley also huck up over half of their 3s on pull-ups, and both of them shoot it better than catch-and-shoots, an abnormality compared to the rest of the league.
Conley’s at a bonkers 42.9% on nearly four pull-up 3s a game, which will be the best NBA.com’s tracking database has seen since its start in 2014 if it holds.
It’s a great collection of threats but also a testament to Snyder having his system down to a science of maximizing what his core group does well.
Conley, Mitchell and Bogdanovic are all capable as the primary option of an action and there aren’t many teams that have someone who can guard all three of those guys, and the Jazz will mix in Clarkson and Joe Ingles off the bench as dribble guys too. Throw in the central feature of Gobert’s screen setting and gravity as a rim runner, plus the shooting of O’Neale and that’s a whole lot of firepower.
Then, when they are missing, Gobert is gobbling those up and heavily contributing to a Jazz team that is top-5 in second-chance points.
The offense is a well-oiled machine. Look at this shot chart of its makes in a win over Denver earlier this month.
And here are a few clips from that victory to help visualize what this offense can do despite being a bad playmaking team statistically.
Mitchell’s drive here and the ghost screen from Bogdanovic forces a double so now Bogdanovic gets downhill and goes right through Aaron freaking Gordon.
This Gobert screen sends the Nuggets’ Facundo Campazzo into the front row and then Conley executes a really tough finish.
Mitchell swings this to Bogdanovic just so Gobert can get deep into Gordon before the ball comes back and Gordon is screwed.
They do the same thing twice here, with Denver sniffing out the initial go before getting bamboozled on the repeat.
As you can tell, Snyder uses his multiple ball-handling threats well, giving the defense something to think about and often benefitting from motion that follows the initial piece of movement.
Dribble handoff for Conley? Nope, two-man game for Ingles on the elbows.
Mitchell and Clarkson both shoot well north of 50% on drives.
Check out how Mitchell splits this light pick from O’Neale to take advantage of the preparation for Gobert before the slight drop step to create room for his floater.
Clarkson’s got a certain level of expertise to his scoring package off the dribble as well, which will feature more prominently on Monday when Mitchell is out.
Utah’s legit, and if it gets back to the way it has defended the past couple of years, they pose as much of a threat as Golden State does to Phoenix’s potential repeat in the West.