SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz entered Game 3 of their Western Conference first-round series coming off a loss to a shorthanded Dallas Mavericks, and Thursday night was no different as the Mavericks (still without Luka Doncic) took the win on the road, 126-118.
The Mavs came out loose and looked comfortable playing together without their star player. Second-year guard Josh Green was the difference-maker for the Mavs in the first half, putting up 10 points, six assists and two steals in 11 minutes off the bench before halftime.
The Mavs had a comfortable 17-point lead at halftime after connecting on 13 3-pointers to the Jazz’s three, prompting boos from the 18,306 fans in Vivint Arena as they walked off the court.
"We weren't playing well, we got booed," Jazz star Donovan Mitchell said. "It's part of the game. I've booed the hell out of a TV as a kid and it's nothing personal. It is what it is."
The Jazz looked lost on defense during the first half. Jalen Brunson was getting to the lane with ease and dishing it out for open shots. The Jazz struggled in help-side defense, they weren't shooting the gap and were slow on rotations.
"In the end, we still have to contain the ball," Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said. "When the ball gets in the paint, that creates problems for us because we're coming over to help and they're kicking it out for open threes."
Snyder switched it up with a small-ball lineup, taking Rudy Gobert out and subbing in Eric Paschall with five minutes left in the third quarter. Gobert didn’t sub back into the game until the eight-minute mark in the fourth.
It opened up the spacing on the floor and allowed for players like Mitchell and Mike Conley to get downhill. Mitchell took over, electrifying the sold-out crowd with two impressive dunks to bring the Jazz within six points heading into the fourth quarter. The Jazz cut it to one point with under seven minutes to go, but they couldn’t contain Brunson (who is averaging 32 points in the series) as he closed out the game with eight points and finished with 31.
"I like what we did in the second half," Gobert said. "The thing for us now is, can we have that intensity defensively for 48 minutes? And we're going to have to do it if we want to win any games."
Jazz in need of massive overhaul in offseason
The narrative around the Jazz has been the same for the past six seasons. They’re great during the regular season and can’t bring it all together during postseason play.
Last season, they had an All-Star-caliber backcourt with Mitchell and Conley, Defensive Player of the Year Gobert, Sixth Man of the Year Jordan Clarkson and they still couldn’t beat the Los Angeles Clippers, even with Kawhi Leonard missing the final two games.
After failing to make the postseason in Snyder's first two seasons, the Jazz have lost in the first or second round each season since 2016-17.
The speculation of tension between Mitchell and Gobert the past two seasons came alive again late this season.
A tweet went viral noting the number of passes between the pair each game, prompting Snyder to unleash on a 19-minute rant defending the duo during a pregame news conference earlier this month.
“The suggestion that Donovan would look Rudy off when Rudy’s deep in the paint … When it gets to the point where Donovan’s answering questions [about it after shootaround], the inference there is that he doesn’t pass to him and there’s a problem between the two,” Snyder said at the time. “I haven’t seen that at all. They sit at the same table when they eat sometimes.”
Snyder can defend the pair’s on-court chemistry until he’s blue in the face, but something needs to change with this team. Snyder has one more year on his contract, but there are already several teams reportedly interested if the Jazz decide to part ways with him after this season.
There is also speculation that the New York Knicks are planning a move for Mitchell. Something has to give because this team isn’t working.
The front office isn’t helping either, making questionable draft picks the past two years.
In the 2020 draft, Utah selected 7-footer Udoka Azubuike with the 27th overall pick (breakout Memphis Grizzlies guard Desmond Bane was still on the board). Azubuike has averaged only three points in eight minutes over the past two seasons.
A year later, the Jazz had the 30th pick in the draft and traded down to No. 45 for Jared Butler, passing on New Orleans Pelicans rookie standout Herbert Jones.
In December, the Jazz hired former Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge as CEO of the team. Ainge is credited with rebuilding the Celtics, bringing in Brad Stevens as the head coach and drafting Jayson Tatum. The Jazz may be looking for him to do something similar this offseason. Whether it’s completely blowing up the team or trading one of their star players, many around the organization have confidence in Ainge to eventually get over the hump and bring a championship to Utah for the first time in franchise history.
The end is most likely near for this version of the Jazz. It's an uphill battle getting past a Mavs team with or without Doncic in Game 4 on Saturday.
"We just have to win. That's it," Mitchell said. "Our main focus is the next game, and we'll just go from there. We can't lose two games at home."
Clearly, it's not that simple.