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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz are the last team standing, so to speak.
In a bit of irony, the team that was first hit by the pandemic is the only team to not have any cases of COVID-19 this season. But there’s not any sense of special pride in that fact. Sure, the Jazz have been vigilant with masks and every player has gotten vaccinated, but they realize there’s a lot of luck, too.
There was also some luck provided Monday: San Antonio’s Dejounte Murray entered COVID protocols the day the Jazz came into town. Considering Murray put up a triple-double the last time the Jazz played the Spurs, it was lucky.
It also wasn’t the only reason Utah left San Antonio with a 110-104 win.
The Jazz were without their own leading scorer Donovan Mitchell, who was in Salt Lake City dealing with a strained lower back, and shot just 29% from 3-point range. Those two things could have made it a difficult night for Utah, but it was as convincing of a 6-point win as you could get (the Jazz led by 14 with under two minutes remaining).
How did they do it?
Some excellent defense and a versatile offense that, once again, showed it isn’t limited to making the deep ball.
Utah held San Antonio to 45% shooting and gave the Spurs just nine free throws all game. The Jazz rarely fouled, didn’t give up easy looks at the rim and only gave up nine offensive rebounds. You’re not gonna lose a lot of games when you’re holding a team to those kind of numbers.
“Some of the actions that they were playing out of — whether it was pick and roll or dribble handoffs — they really cut with a lot of force,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “And I thought earlier in the game when they turned in the corner, those looks were too open and a lot of that had to do with our aggressiveness switching, our aggressiveness up on the ball, and just competing.”
The Jazz were more aggressive in the second quarter and that’s when they held San Antonio to just 16 points as they built a double-digit halftime lead. San Antonio’s 43 points at halftime was a season-low for the Spurs.
That helped soften the blow of not having Mitchell.
After last season’s historic 3-point shooting, the Jazz have dealt with more and more teams staying home on shooters and forcing Utah to find other ways to generate points. It’s showed how versatile the team is this season.
“The whole game plan is to take away our 3s, so just force us to play a little more in two-on-two situations,” said Rudy Gobert, who had 16 points and 13 rebounds Monday.
The good news for the Jazz: Most of their best 3-point shooters can attack in other ways. Mike Conley, Joe Ingles and Jordan Clarkson have been superb this season finding space in the paint. If that’s the shot the Spurs were willing to give up, the Jazz were happy to take them.
Clarkson had 23 points and was just 2 of 7 from 3-point range, Bojan Bogdanovic had 19 points with just one made 3-pointer, and all but 3 of Conley’s 12 points came from inside the arc. The Spurs forced the Jazz into midrange shots, and the Jazz beat them with the shots.
As a team, the Jazz shot 55% on their 2-point shots.
“Different teams are gonna provide different opportunities and different reads,” Snyder said. “They’ve been a team that’s been very committed to not allowing our bigs to get behind them, and then they’re really staying with shooters. So when you do get in the paint, some of the traditional things we’re looking for — whether it’s a lob or a kick out for 3 — those are the things they’re taking away and it puts us in a position where there’s more space in the lane for guys to finish.”
The Jazz are winning in different ways — something that should prove beneficial if (or when) their COVID luck finally runs out.