For most NBA teams, the turnaround the Utah Jazz pulled off to erase a nine-point deficit entering the fourth quarter and win 103-94 Saturday night at the Rose Garden would be the comeback of the season. For the Jazz? Just another night at the office. Saturday was the sixth time this season Utah has rallied from behind to win on the road, all of them against 2010 playoff teams.
Before the game, Jazz assistant Phil Johnson--acting as head coach for the second and final game with Jerry Sloan away from the team to attend the funeral of a family member--was asked about the run of comebacks. Johnson said that they were testament to the team's character, but also pointed out that falling behind was a poor recipe for long-term success.
Utah's poor first-half play in building those deficits is indicative of key weaknesses the team needs to address. Most obvious on Saturday was the Jazz's inability to clear the defensive glass. Only the miniature Phoenix Suns have rebounded a lower percentage of opponent misses this season. That presented a problem against the Blazers, who are the league's top team in offensive rebound percentage. Portland grabbed 24 offensive rebounds and was relentless on the glass for extended stretches, ending up with 17 more shot attempts than Utah.
Rebounding is a new trouble spot for the Jazz, which ranked fifth in the league in defensive rebounding a year ago. Utah lost something on the defensive glass by replacing its best rebounder, Carlos Boozer, with Al Jefferson. The larger issue, however, seems to be that the Jazz isn't very large. Until Mehmet Okur returns, Andrei Kirilenko is serving as the team's backup power forward. It was with Kirilenko at the four that the Blazers had their way with Utah in the paint. Meanwhile, backup center Kyrylo Fesenko--who is splitting time with Francisco Elson, the only other active 7-footer on the roster--is a poor defensive rebounder.
Okur isn't exactly Dennis Rodman himself, but his return will put the rotation in better order. SCHOENE projected that the Jazz would be ever so slightly above the league average on the defensive glass, which would be good enough to make the team's defensive stops stand up.
At the other end of the floor, Utah is having surprising difficulty putting the ball in the basket. Since Deron Williams' emergence as an elite point guard, the Jazz has ranked no worse than eighth in the league in Offensive Rating. So far this season, Utah is 17th, and it's a lack of first-half production that keeps putting the team in early holes. The Jazz has averaged 44.1 points before halftime, according to hoopstats.com, before exploding to 54.5 in the last two quarters.
I'm at a loss to explain the difference between halves, but Utah is actually ahead of SCHOENE's projection of a 20th-place finish in Offensive Rating. The Jazz lost a lot of offensive talent over the summer, which was partially obscured by the focus on Jefferson replacing Boozer. After years of playing in post-centric offenses (as well as last year's foray in the triangle), Jefferson is still evidently uncomfortable in Utah's flex system, but he figures to come around in time.
At least as costly have been the drop-offs the Jazz has suffered on the wings, where Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver and Wesley Matthews are all gone from last year's pre-deadline rotation. Neither veteran Raja Bell nor rookie Gordon Hayward has proven up to the task of replacing their offensive production. Bell is making just 27.3 percent of his threes and is years removed from being an efficient scorer, while Hayward's poor shooting (14.3 percent beyond the arc and, surprisingly, 50 percent at the free throw line) has undermined his True Shooting Percentage. Holdover C.J. Miles had also struggled with his shooting before exploding for a career-best seven three-pointers to lead Saturday's comeback.
That has been the story for Utah--a different hero, some of them improbable, emerging each time the team falls behind on the road. Inevitably, this can't continue forever. The Jazz's point differential--+1.5 points per game--is inconsistent with the 10-5 record the team currently sports. The comebacks have produced several close victories in games that could have gone either way. Utah should be something closer to 8-7 thus far. At the same time, the Jazz has played a road-heavy schedule, which means those close road games would have been impressive had the team won them or not.
Beyond that, those wins count the same in the final standings, which is what makes the comebacks important in the bigger picture. By winning a handful of games that appeared to be lost (and the team's Win Expectancy frequently dropped below 10 percent in those games, Basketball-Reference.com's Neil Paine showed), Utah has put itself in position to overcome a difficult stretch without Okur. The return of last year's starting center (which still has no timetable, according to Johnson) will help address, though not eliminate, the Jazz's weaknesses. With that in mind, this is surely a better team than SCHOENE (which had Utah at .500) foresaw. Just how much better will depend on the extent to which the Jazz can improve its weaknesses and stop falling behind early.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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