Utah Jazz

Joe Johnson, Jazz Offense Do Just Enough To Draw Clippers Series Even at 2-2

Rudy Gobert returns, but it’s Joe Johnson who once again leads way for the Utah Jazz, who outlast the Los Angeles Clippers 105-98 to tie first round series at 2-2.

Basketball has often been compared to dancing; a lot of movements coming together at just the right time to form something beautiful.

That’s a fair comparison. If a pass is a fraction of a second late, or a teammate cuts a moment too early, or a jumper released just a little off balance, an entire play likely gets scrapped. Everything has to be timed to near perfection. It almost seems like a miracle the sport is entertaining at all with how complex it has become.

Still though, one of the game’s biggest draws will always be the ability for a player to absolutely take over a game, for someone to simply throw every preconvceived notion out the window and win the damn thing on his own.

It’s what Michael Jordan built a lasting legacy upon, what Kobe Bryant became obsessed with and what LeBron James has perfected come playoff time. As much fun as team basketball is, there will always be a home for iso-ball.

After all, there’s a reason the NBA is the most star-driven professional sports league.

While sports like football and baseball require a constant team effort – like a Quarterback needing a receiver to get open while simultaneously needing his offensive line to give him time to find that receiver – a basketball game can genuinely be swayed all by the actions of one individual.

Take LeBron James as the best example of this. He joins the NBA’s worst team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, in 2003 and within two seasons makes them into a perennial playoff team, including carrying a supporting cast led by Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden to the 2007 NBA Finals. LeBron then leaves the Cavs in 2010 in a private, quiet ceremony amongst close friends and announces his decision to go to the Miami Heat.

The Heat, trending downwards with heavy mileage- Dwyane Wade at the helm, immediately skyrocket upwards, winning two out of the next four championships with LBJ. Cleveland, meanwhile, compiled a record of 97-215 over that time period, highlighted by definitely-not-racist owner Dan Gilbert penning his definitely-not-racist letter to James after his departure.

James eventually decided to return to Cleveland after his four-year stay in Miami (Miami > “home”, always remember that kids), with the Heat immediately returning to mediocrity and the Cavs winning a championship in LeBron’s second season back.

This is a fairly extreme example, but the theme is there: Basketball is determined, above all else, by one dude being better than everybody else.

That fact is even true on a game-to-game basis, as it’s not uncommon a game is determined by one player simply getting hot, becoming unguardable and winning it by himself. Hell, the Golden State Warriors and Steph Curry did it 73 times last season.

The Utah Jazz do not have a definitive star to go to in order to “take over” a game like Curry or LeBron. Their offense generally rely’s on three key themes:

  1. A league-leading amount of off-ball movement that eventually leads to open catch-and-shoots for above-average shooters like Gordon Hayward, Joe Ingles and Rodney Hood.
  2. Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors on-ball screens that allow Hayward, Ingles and George Hill to penetrate defenses and create a shot either for himself or a teammate.
  3. Iso ball with Hayward and Joe Johnson trying to create a shot.

Most teams generally follow the same pattern: Set-plays and off-ball action, pick-and-rolls and relying simply on stars carrying the way. Speaking in extremely broad terms, the only real difference is the degree to which each strategy is used (I say broad because teams, of course, have more specific gameplans as well, but we’re covering the basics here).

If you take out any of those themes, it can have a variety of effects on the others. Think of it like Jenga: if you take out one piece at the right spot, the rest will fall (sweet reference, broh).

For the most part, Gobert is Utah’s most important offensive piece. Without him, they can struggle to get open for catch-and-shoot’s and the offense can essentially get bogged down as guys struggle to get open looks, which in turn puts a lot of pressure on Hayward and Johnson create their own shots.

With the exception of one possession, that has been the challenge posed to coach Quin Snyder for his team’s first round NBA Playoff matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers. That’s all it took, just one possession, for Gobert to bang knees with Luc Mbah a Mute, hyperextending it in the process and sending his future availability into doubt.

Coming into Sunday night’s Game 4, the Jazz had been fairly sucessful in their response. Johnson sank a game-winning buzzer beater to open the series in Game 1 and led by Hayward’s 40-points made Game 3 competitive.

Game 4 was blessed with Gobert’s surprising early return to action, featuring 24 solid minutes of playing time and 15 points on 6-for-6 shooting. Oh, and he also threw down on Mo Speights in simply horrific fashion.

Gobert paced a Jazz team that was without Hayward for the entirety of the second half after he was forced to leave due to food poisoning. Hayward had battled the flu-like symptoms all day and, despite looking like he’d just seen the Ark of the Covenant, made the decision to try and tough it out and play.

I’m all for rubbing some dirt on it, but that’s the face of a man who looks like he is roughly three feet away from Death’s doorstep.

As great as Gobert is, he simply lacks the ability to take the rock and win his team the game in the same way that Hayward and Johnson can. With Hayward out and the Jazz trailing by as much as 7 with 7:07 (*X-Files music begins to play), that responsibility fell once again on the shoulders of Iso Joe.

At 35-years-old and in his 15 year in the NBA, Johnson calmly and efficiently went to work scoring Utah’s next 11 points, eventually finishing with 28 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists on 12-for-17 shooting from the field.

Outside of Johnson and Hayward, Utah just doesn’t really have anyone that can make this type of shot. Work with limited separation against a good defender, pound the ball down low and eventually bury a tough fadeaway jumper to bring the Jazz to within 1.

The next possession, Johnson gave them the lead.

This time, Johnson is able to get to the rim and finish a tough floater over one of the game’s premier shot-blockers in DeAndre Jordan. There simply aren’t a lot of guys who can take over a game for you like this and at 35-years-old, it’s fairly shocking that Johnson is still one of them (fun fact: Johnson was a teammate of Clippers forward Paul Pierce with the Boston Celtics…way back in 2001). 

With Iso Joe tearing LA to shreds, the Clippers started to double-team him for the remained of the period, coming off Rodney Hood – who had shot just 4-for-14 to that point in Game 4 and a quiet 38.9 percent in the series – and Ingles to do so.

Reddick originally switches onto Johnson and realizing the mismatch, Mbah a Moute leaves Hood to help. Johnson, being the 15 year vet that he is, see’s it immediately and dishes right back to Hood, who steps into a three and gives Utah a 5 point lead (and shimmies afterward for good luck).

Hood really struggled over the last month or so of the season, shooting just 34.5 percent from the field over his final 13 games of the season while averaging 8.8 ppg as his minutes slowly dried up. With Hayward out, the fourth was his time to shine and after burying the three above, Hood came right down the next possession and attacked  the Clippers once again:

This time, he attacks Mbah a Moute and finished a tough running floater, putting the Jazz up 7 with a 1:30 to go.

After a bucket by Chris Paul on the ensuing possession, the stage was set for Utah to potentially seal-the-deal, with Johnson once again going Iso.

Once again, the Clippers try to double him and once again, Johnson makes them pay, this time finding Jinglin’ Joe in the corner for the clinching bucket.

Utah’s offense got just enough done without Gordon Hayward on the floor to pull away late in Game 4.

Johnson inspired enough fear from Doc Rivers to demand double teams and with the game on the line in a crucial playoff game, never looked overwhelmed, making perfect decisions for essentially the entire fourth quarter to pace the Jazz. Hood, in particular, looked like he was feeding off Johnson and buried a couple of tough shots, while Ingles continued to be a steadying-hand for Utah.

Utah is often described as a team without a true superstar and while that may be a fact to some extent, it doesn’t mean they lack the pieces necessary to pull out wins. With Hayward returning and a healthy Gobert for Game 5, the Jazz offense might be better than just good enough.

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