The Whiteboard: The Utah Jazz are going streaking

The Whiteboard, Utah Jazz

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After a double-digit blowout of the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday night, the Utah Jazz are officially on a tear. They’ve won six straight and eight of their last 10 games, with wins over the Clippers, Spurs, Bucks, Cavaliers, Hawks and Nuggets, all over whom are in playoff position in their respective conferences. And they haven’t just been winning, they’ve been steamrolling people — over the current six-game streak they’re outscoring opponents by an average of 16.2 points per 100 possessions, with elite efficiency at both ends.

This current streak stands in sharp contrast to a 2-2 start to the season, a start that was one clutch jumper from Donovan Mitchell against the Thunder away from being 1-3. It’s easy to look at a sudden turn in results, a streak like the current one, and pin it to a handful of dramatic changes. But in reality, it’s a bunch of small things clicking into place.

Mike Conley has taken a small step back

Conley was been extremely sharp throughout the entire season, shooting a career-best 41.1 percent from beyond the arc and posting a career-high in assists per 36 minutes. But the best version of these Utah Jazz is a balanced offensive attack with multiple ball-handlers capable of bending the defense, exploiting space in a secondary creator role or relocating around the perimeter for open jumpers. In this current six-game win streak, Conley is averaging fewer drives (13.8 per game to 10.5) and taking fewer shots (13.9 to 10.8). That small reduction in his on-ball role, with no drop in efficiency, has created opportunities for others to step forward and give opponents more threats to deal with.

Jordan Clarkson and Bojan Bogdanovic have taken small steps forward

Clarkson has been absolutely phenomenal all season, following a career year with another big leap. He’s currently shooting better than 40 percent from beyond the arc and 90 percent from the line. If just two more of his 189 shot attempts this season had gone in, he’d be on track for a 50-40-90 year. As Conley’s drive numbers have dipped slightly, Clarkson’s has taken up some of the slack and he’s shooting 61.9 percent on nearly 9.5 drives per game over this stretch.

Bogdanovic missed the NBA bubble and playoffs after undergoing wrist surgery and he started this year slowly as he shook off the rust. He’s still far from his peak but he’s gone from shooting 4-of-22 on drives in the first eight games of the season to 5-of-14 over the last six while attacking the basket slightly more often. His self-creation isn’t all the way back but he’s been more of a threat as a passer and he’s made 15-of-32 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers in the last six games.

Donovan Mitchell his ticked up the intensity

Mitchell’s incredible playoff performance was largely overshadowed by Jamal Murray and the Denver Nuggets, but it’s worth remembering how he finished last season — averaging 36.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.9 assists on a 69.6 true shooting percentage across a seven-game first-round series. Against Denver, he averaged more than 20 drives per game and produced nearly a point per drive between scoring assists. And he leveraged the pressure of his dribble penetration by hitting 26-of-51 pull-up 3-pointers.

Over the past six games, Mitchell is starting to look more and more like that player again — increasing his shooting percentage on drives from 38.8 to 54.5 percent and his pull-up 3-point percentage from 20 to 42.9.

Utah Jazz are defending well but still playing small

One of Utah’s only big offseason moves was adding Derrick Favors, who played with the team from 2010 to 2019, before signing a one-year deal with the Pelicans for the 2019-20 season. The team featured an elite defense during much of Favors’ tenure and found plenty of success playing two-big lineups with Favors and Rudy Gobert together. Over the last two seasons Favors was on the Jazz, Gobert played about 36 percent of his minutes with Favors on the floor and the Jazz were incredibly stingy, allowing just 102.1 points per 100 possessions. The problem was that the offense often suffered from a lack of spacing with two paint-bound bigs clogging the lane.

This year, just 13 of Gobert’s 425 minutes (about 3 percent) have come alongside Favors, a rotation tweak that has definitely juiced the offense. But the defense has still been elite with single-big lineups and players like Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles and Georges Niang taking most of the minutes at the 4. The defense hasn’t been nearly as effective with Favors alone but he’s playing a career-low 16.2 minutes per game and the Jazz seem to have figured out a much more effective (and constrained) role for him than when he was last with the team.

Of course, this is just a six-game streak and there certainly could be some regression to the mean coming with some of their offensive numbers. But for now, the Jazz look like contenders and with games over the next three weeks against the Warriors, Nuggets, Mavericks they’ll have plenty of chances to continue proving it.

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