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Middle Management: Utah’s Playoff Push Lays a Groundwork

The groundwork has been laid for the Utah Jazz to begin realizing their long-term goals.

Ben Dowsett

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For the most analytically inclined, the NBA’s “middle” is the least attractive ground to occupy. If you aren’t contending for the title, the thinking goes, it’s much more desirable to be at the very bottom with a chance to re-stock on the blue-chip talent at the top of the draft.

NBA basketball doesn’t exist in a quantifiable vacuum, though, and this season’s Utah Jazz are the perfect representation of why. To the coldest analytical mind, Utah’s passionate pursuit of a playoff spot that likely only earns them the right to face a behemoth as huge underdogs in the first round might seem counterproductive; with no realistic title aspirations this season, why not strategically “tank,” get out of the race and take the tiny chance that a late lottery slot could land them in the top three in the draft?

The Jazz aren’t thinking that way at any level of the organization. The minuscule odds of landing a transformational player aren’t worth the trade-off, especially not for a franchise already thoroughly stocked up with young talent at every position. It’s a personal thing, too: Anything but an all-out effort to succeed and grow as a group would be borderline offensive to the guys in the locker room.

“It’s huge for us,” Gordon Hayward said. “That’s what we’re striving for.”

The implied reasoning here isn’t too scientific: pride and confidence are just as real for NBA players as anyone else in the world, perhaps more so. No stat can chart the benefits of fighting tooth and nail for a seed or battling a juggernaut in a playoff environment, even just for a few games. No metric can track the sort of impact it might have on guys like Hayward or Derrick Favors, legitimate burgeoning stars who may face a choice whether to stick it out in Utah or bolt town within the next couple years.

There are empirical benefits as well, though. Coach Quin Snyder, not exactly the philosophical type (football metaphors aside), can see an observable benefit for the future.

“I think it’s a different experience for us right now, whether we make [the playoffs] or not,” Snyder said. “The way that you succeed in a situation like this is being focused, not just every game, but every minute of every game. That level of focus is something that we’re learning how to do, and maybe a situation like this will help us grow in that respect as well.”

Whether it’s due to the increased focus Snyder referenced or a more tangible development like the team’s return to (mostly) full health, the results are showing through of late.

Utah’s defense, the bedrock of a group that surprised everyone down the stretch last season with a 50-plus-win pace after the All-Star break, is finally rounding back into form after an up and down year. Snyder values continuity within his defensive scheme as much as any coach in the league, and it’s been tough to find with several of the team’s most integral pieces in and out of the lineup.

“The pieces of our defense that made us unique – one was the ball in Dante Exum, one was the rim in Rudy [Gobert], and also Derrick [Favors] is a unique defensive player,” Snyder said. “You take Dante out of the equation, and then you have Rudy and Derrick less than half the games together… what that did is it put a lot of pressure on some of our other guys.”

The Jazz went 11-16 from the start of December through January 22, the dates where at least one of Gobert or Favors remained sidelined (they only overlapped for six full games, where Utah went 3-3). That’s no death knell, but the damage in this case extended beyond just the specific time both guys missed.

“Doing something for a period of time, for one or two months, you do establish habits,” Snyder said. “And whether those habits last over six months is a different situation.”

The Jazz were missing two of their defensive anchors for just long enough to become comfortable without them, only to then have to re-integrate them at separate times.

“For us, we didn’t have an opportunity to be together long enough to find a groove in that sense, as a collective unit defensively,” Snyder said. “I think that’s started to happen, [and] we’ve gotten a little better.”

Even though the historic defensive level his group attained in the final 30 games of the 2014-15 season set a ridiculously high baseline from which to judge, Snyder is probably understating things here. The Jazz have been the league’s third-best per-possession defense since Favors returned in late January, just decimals behind the vaunted San Antonio Spurs for second overall, and are threatening to finish the year in the league’s overall top five.

“We’ve been hitting a stride,” swingman Rodney Hood said. “We’ve been defending, we’ve been helping each other, we’ve been really taking pride in it. We’ve been showing a lot of emotion on that end. And it’s carrying over.”

A few points of emphasis have supplemented the return to health, mostly in discipline- and effort-related areas.

For a team whose defensive aggression didn’t translate into ultra-high foul totals down the stretch last year, the first few months of the current campaign were a bit surprising. Only the Minnesota Timberwolves fouled their opponents more often on a per-possession basis (used to account for Utah’s snail-like pace) through Favors’ return date. The Jazz appeared to be struggling with the right levels of intensity and contact, elements made worse by a worrying tendency to foul jump-shooters and a surprising amount of difficulty grasping Snyder’s emphasis on the “Euro foul” to stop transition chances – something they’re still not fully comfortable with.

They’ve toned it down since returning their defensive anchors, which Snyder has credited as “a larger shift than anything” while trying to account for the team’s improved defensive performance overall. Two fewer fouls for every 100 possessions may not seem like much, but the margins here are minuscule – the Jazz allowed among the 10 highest number of per-possession free throws before returning Favors and Gobert, but concede a borderline bottom-five figure since. They’ve grown more and more disciplined since February, a fact reflected in the numbers.

“I think it’s emphasis,” Snyder opined. “It’s something that we’ve talked a lot about – it’s actually helped our defense that we fouled a lot at the beginning of the year.”

Team rebounding has ticked up a few notches back into the league’s elite, another important element. Whether due to personnel, waning focus or some other major factor(s), the Jazz were strangely lacking on the defensive glass – after closing the previous year as an elite team here, Utah was just 19th by percentage prior to returning both starting big men. They’re back into the top five league-wide since, and are sacrificing nearly two fewer points a night to second-chance opportunities as a result.

Put it all together, and the Jazz are quickly drawing the sort of “no one wants to see this team in round one” buzz typically reserved for a team like the Memphis Grizzlies this time of year – so long as they get in, that is, not yet a certainty by any stretch. Even if they likely wouldn’t have the horses to offer more than a token challenge to the Spurs, Warriors or Thunder, those groups will feel this Jazz team, another frequent Snyder point of emphasis.

“Teams may have some hot spurts, but at the end of the day we make them take tough shots,” says Hood.

The aches and bruises will almost certainly last longer for any potential first-round opponent than the series itself.

Gauging just how much they’ll benefit long term from the chase and a few actual playoff games is impossible for now, but all the signs point in the right direction. Utah’s is an engaged and like-minded locker room, with guys learning more about themselves and their capabilities on the fly. Snyder has their full trust, a plain benefit of such a player-friendly coaching style, even when it includes moves like leaving one of Gobert or Favors on the bench to close games here or there.

“We all trust Coach [Snyder] with what he decides and who he decides to play,” said Hayward. “A team is a good team when people aren’t complaining. They realize what’s important, and that’s getting a win.”

If buy-in and skill development continue at the current rate, a first-round exit feels like this team’s baseline moving forward. They have plenty of space to continue growing, with an embedded coach quickly and emphatically earning his pre-NBA reputation for player development. Hayward and Favors might be the only two true core pieces who don’t have some degree of significant development still to come.

The groundwork has been laid for a franchise beginning to realize their long-term goals. The Jazz have survived a stiff health test and come out the other side better for it; their presence in the league’s middle looks likely to be short-lived.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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NBA PM: Patrick Beverley Set the Tone for Clippers in Season Opener

Patrick Beverley set the tone for the L.A. Clippers with his aggressive defense in their season opener.

Jesse Blancarte

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“The LA Clippers are going to the Western Conference Finals. Guaranteed.”

That bold statement was made by Charles Barkley during TNT’s coverage of last night’s matchup between the Lakers and Clippers.

While Barkley may have had his hot take canon primed and in mid-season form, that should not overshadow the fact that the Los Angeles Clippers put together a strong showing in their first regular season game since the departure of Chris Paul.

Blake Griffin logged 29 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two steals and knocked down three of his six three-point attempts. Griffin was aggressive and showed no hesitation on his jumper, which seemed to open up lanes for him to drive to the basket (where he is most effective). DeAndre Jordan was fantastic as well, contributing 14 points, 24 rebounds, one assist and one steal.

While the Clippers lost some significant contributors from last season, including J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute and Jamal Crawford, the team had some returning and new players show that they are capable of filling the void.

Milos Teodosic was just 2-9 from the field, but knocked down two three-pointers and looked comfortable and effective running the team’s offense. Danilo Gallinarni shot just 3-13 from the field but looked healthy and spry, displaying the kind of mobility that is necessary to play the small forward position. His ability to act as a secondary playmaker wasn’t on full display, but there were moments where it was apparent that he could be a big help in generating open looks for his teammates. Lou Williams also looked good in his Clippers debut, scoring in a variety of ways off the bench and contributing six assists as well. Wesley Johnson continues to look confident and aggressive, a continuation from his preseason performances, and is starting to knock down the open shots his teammates are creating for him (which has been a problem for him in the past).

While the Clippers looked solid in their opening act without Paul, it should be noted that the Lakers are a young team overall and their defense has been a major problem for the last few seasons. While the Lakers have added some promising young talent over the offseason, like most young teams, they are going to struggle to slow down veteran teams with potent offenses. It would be a mistake to think the Clippers can replicate this sort of offensive performance every night, especially against the better defensive teams in the league. However, perhaps the most promising part of the Clippers’ season debut was the fact that they seemed to feed off of and embrace the gritty demeanor and style of play that Patrick Beverley brings to the court each and every night.

Last night’s game was the NBA debut for rookie point guard Lonzo Ball, who many predict will develop into a star player. Unfortunately for Ball, his opening night matchup came against Beverley, who earned a spot on the 2017 All-Defensive First Team. Beverley repeatedly guarded Ball past half court, pushed him around and did everything he could to throw him off of his game. He held Ball to three points, nine rebounds and four assists in 29 minutes of action.

Beverley, like every NBA player, has heard the hype and noise surrounding Ball and his future in the league (most of it from his outspoken father, LaVar).

“I just had to set the tone,” Beverley said. “I told him after the game that due to all the riffraff his dad brings, that he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him. I let him know that after the game. What a better way to start than spending 94 feet guarding him tonight — welcome the young guy to the NBA.”

Beverley is one of the more aggressive defenders in the NBA and is known for trying to get under the skin of his opponents, so Lonzo may not face this level of intensity in every game. But based on Beverley’s comments, it’s clear that he expects other players around the league to defend Lonzo aggressively as well.

Snoop Dogg, the rapper and passionate Lakers fan, summed up the issue for Ball arguably better than anyone else has so far.

“His father put him in the lion’s den with pork chop drawers on,” said Snoop.

For his part, Lonzo complimented Beverley on his aggressive defense.

“[Beverley] plays hard. He knows his job. He does it very well,” said Ball. “He gets under people’s skin and plays defense and does what he can to help his team win.”

Beverley set the tone for the Clippers, who looked crisp and confident throughout the game. Griffin’s three-point shot looks like it could finally be a reliable part of his offensive arsenal. Jordan was very active on the glass, pulling down 24 rebounds (possibly inspired in part by his commitment to donate $100 per rebound this season to help the effort to rebuild his hometown of Houston after the damage inflicted by Hurricane Harvey). The rest of the supporting cast played with the sort of cohesion and confidence that takes at least a few weeks into the season to develop. Again, the Clippers’ performance could have stemmed primarily from the Lakers’ shaky defense, but it was encouraging to see the team play with such force and confidence in the absence of Paul.

The Western Conference is extremely talented and deep, so it’s unlikely that the Clippers will make it to the Western Conference Finals as Barkley predicted. However, challenging for a spot in the playoffs and perhaps even doing some damage once there seems to be in the realm of possibility. This is especially the case considering how much of an impact Beverley had Thursday night, both defensively and in setting the tone for the rest of his new teammates.

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Morris Bringing Leadership To Celtics

Marcus Morris chats with Basketball Insiders for a one-on-one exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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Returning just one starter from last year’s top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics underwent wholesale changes this past offseason.

Gordon Hayward signed a super max contract. Danny Ainge pried Kyrie Irving away from the Cleveland Cavaliers in a blockbuster deal. Jayson Tatum was selected with the third overall pick in the NBA Draft.

In early July, though, there was an under-the-radar trade executed that hasn’t been mentioned much. Surprisingly, Celtics guard Avery Bradley was sent to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Marcus Morris, a heady wing with size and versatility to add to a revamped core of players.

Bradley was a mainstay with the franchise for seven years and played a vital role as a part of Brad Stevens’ system, but Boston decided to move in a different direction. As for the man they got in return, he’s thrilled to be there.

“It makes me feel good,” Morris told Basketball Insiders of Ainge dealing one of his best former players for him. “It makes you feel wanted.

“This is my first time since I’ve been in the NBA I’ve been on a team with a bunch of guys that [are] All-Stars. With the maturity of the team being this high and having them high expectations on us, I’m excited to get the season going and see how far we can take this.”

The Detroit Pistons likely wanted to keep him, but the organization clearly felt Bradley’s skill set was too good to pass up. For Morris, he insisted there was no indication that his old team would send him away, but he hasn’t been bashful about talking up his new home.

“Had no idea that I was gonna be a Boston Celtic, but I’m ready for the challenge, you know?” Morris said. “I’m excited. Boston, being a Celtic—it’s something that growing up you don’t really see happening, but when it happens it’s an amazing thing.

“It’s like playing for the Patriots, you know what I mean? One of the most heralded teams and most heralded franchises, and Boston is one of those.”

Entering the seventh season of his career, Morris has remained a steady part of the league. During his time in Detroit, he started nearly every game for the Pistons and found a comfort zone that he believes will carry over in Boston.

“Just continue to be consistent, continue to build on my last past couple of years,” Morris said of his personal goals. “I really felt like I carved my spot in the NBA the last two years—averaging 14 a year and helping my team get to the playoffs one of those years, so I really think I’ve carved a niche in this league.”

The success has come thanks to his versatility and the NBA’s current direction pointing towards that type of game. All of a sudden, not having a defined position makes a player more valuable, something Morris is thankful for as he continues to bring a little bit of everything to the table.

“For guys like me, it’s great,” Morris said. “Coming into the league, I had this ‘tweener’ thing on my back and now it’s like [freaking] great to be a ‘tweener’ at this time. I’m actually happy that it’s switching to my position and guys that can do multiple things are being utilized more in this league.”

Putting the ball in the basket has come fairly easy for Morris, who averaged 14.1 points per game on 42.6 percent from the field over 159 games with Detroit. He’s able to stretch the floor and provide solid spacing offensively, and he envisions doing more than that for this Celtics group.

“And leadership,” Morris said. “I’m not too much of a vocal guy, but I’m a passionate guy on the court. I think that’ll rub off on guys. I love scoring. I love shooting the ball. But that’s not the only thing I do.

“I’ve been a tough defender around this league for the last past years and I’m really looking forward to hanging my hat on that again and just doing whatever it takes for my team to get to that next level.”

Stevens is aware of the impact Morris can bring in the locker room and on the floor. When he returns from a sore knee to make his debut for Boston, that’ll show through his play.

“He’s a guy that can stretch the floor at the four,” Stevens said. “He’s a guy that can guard two through four. He’s tough. He’s smart. He works the right way. We’ll be better with Marcus Morris for sure. The versatility is a very important part of what we want to be.

“Whether he is starting in a couple of weeks or whether he’s coming off the bench, at the end of the day he’s gonna be a critical, critical part of our team.”

While he’s waited to come back, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have stepped up in his absence. With Hayward likely sidelined for the rest of the season, that success will have to be sustained. Morris is a big believer in this promising duo and sees how grounded they are to make that happen.

“They’re mature guys for their age,” Morris said. “Jaylen, I think he’s 20. He’s definitely a lot more mature than I thought. Jayson, too. He’s way more mature than your average 19-year-old.

“At the end of the day, it’s just basketball. I think those guys, they’re ready for the challenge. They love the game. They always in the gym, so I think it’ll be easy for ‘em.”

Part of Morris’ role is guiding those two and the other younger pieces that Boston has as they try and establish themselves as professionals. He’s kind of a coach per se, which is somewhat fitting considering what he did this summer.

Most basketball fans are aware of “The Basketball Tournament” that takes nationwide. For those that aren’t, it’s a single-elimination competition between 64 teams in which the champion receives a $2 million prize. Morris was the head coach of Team FOE—standing for Family Over Everything.

Along with his fellow Kansas alums, including his brother Markieff and Thomas Robinson, Morris coached his team to the final game. Team FOE was in front most of the game but ultimately fell to Boeheim’s Army, a squad filled with former Syracuse Orangemen.

“I was on my way man,” Morris said of coming close. “I actually liked it. I’m a smart guy. Me and basketball stuff, I can put it together real well. I was kinda upset we lost in the fashion that we lost, but we’ll be back next year.

“I’m a smart player,” he said regarding a potential future on the sidelines. “I know the game really well. Coaching comes easy for some guys and I’m just one of those guys.”

You could hear “Coach Morris” down the line, but for now and for years to come, Marcus is focused on his first year with Boston. It’s a team that surely has the talent to be the top team in the East it’s pegged to be. Stevens is a basketball savant with great leadership.

Even without an All-Star like Hayward and a 0-2 start, the Celtics should still be a force to be reckoned with. There’s an even greater demand for them to achieve their potential, especially knowing eyes will be on them, but Morris welcomes the challenge.

“Man, it’s pressure on every team,” Morris said. “It ain’t like it’s just all on the Boston Celtics. It’s pressure on every team. What’s a game without pressure anyway?

“Pressure makes it the best thing. That’s what we need to do anyway. I enjoy the pressure. Me personally.”

Shouldering the load won’t be easy, but if it comes down to it, Morris will be swimming instead of sinking. When all is said and done, he shares the same aspirations as most players do—raising the Larry O’Brien trophy in the summer.

“I want to the win the championship,” Morris said. “You put this type of team together to get to those positions. I’m looking to be playing in June and trying to get to a championship.”

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