The Utah Jazz have earned a top-five offense this season on the strength of one of the most prolific 3-point attacks in the league.
Multiple dribble penetrators and the gravity of a Rudy Gobert rim run collapse all types of defenses, allowing Utah to find open shooters across the perimeter. They’re #1 in 3-point attempts and third in percentage, a large reason they sit with the league’s top record more than halfway through the season.
In trying to earn a second consecutive victory, the Boston Celtics didn’t exactly lock Utah out of the 3-point line through the first three quarters of their matchup on Tuesday night. The Jazz made 12 of their 28 attempts during that stretch, a potent 42.8 percent clip. But Boston had spurts of defensive excellence, specifically to begin each half, that allowed them to enter the final frame up by two points.
Utah was a combined 6-of-16 from beyond in the arc in the first and third quarters. Even the best shooting teams will miss shots they should make, but Boston did its part by keeping their opponent from the inside-out preference that has burned countless other teams.
They would turn a corner or begin dribbling towards the basket, but the Jazz couldn’t quite penetrate the teeth of the defense, allowing Boston’s defenders to avoid having to make multiple efforts to stay closer to shooters.
Wins have been more difficult to come by for the Celtics than expected. One over a Western Conference elite would be a quality one to put in that column, especially to avenge their previous loss to Utah on February 9th.
But then the fourth quarter came around and the script of Boston’s quality 3-point defense was flipped on its head.
That dribble penetration the Celtics had stymied earlier in the game? It evaporated within the first minute of the fourth. A simple Joe Ingles/Rudy Gobert pick-and-roll set off the type of chain reaction Utah, which is tied for third in secondary assists per game, thrives on.
The Jazz made seven of their 15 attempts over the final 12 minutes of action. They hit four within the first five minutes of the quarter to turn a two-point deficit into a nine-point lead, riding it out to a victory.
“They’re one of the best I’ve seen at making the right decision every time,” Brad Stevens said in his postgame presser. “As good as I’ve seen in the NBA in my time as far as a team goes at making that right decision.”
“They have a lot of guys that make that quick read. And then they’re spaced so well.”
One of the more notable changes in Boston’s defensive strategy came in how it defended the pick-and-roll. The Jazz attempt the second-most pull-up 3-pointers in the league and convert them at a league-best clip. Earlier in the game, Celtics big men stood closer to the point of the screen to take away that look.
That defensive principle applied especially to Donovan Mitchell, one of the more high-volume pull-up shooters from beyond the arc. Boston defended Mitchell’s first attempt of the game by ensuring a hand — in this case belonging to Kemba Walker — was in his face, contributing to the missed shot.
But Mitchell finished the game an efficient 3-of-5 on threes, with all of his makes coming in a similar fashion. The All-Star guard would come off the screen and there wasn’t a defender there to meet him.
Boston paid a price for that lack of discipline when it needed to lock in the most. With under four minutes remaining and the Jazz up by one, Mitchell used a subtle re-screen from Gobert set closer to halfcourt to dribble into a 3-pointer that made it a two-possession game.
And then with a little more than a minute remaining in a 3-point game, Mitchell executed a similar play, getting to the top of the key before rising up. Only this time, his make put the game firmly out of Boston’s reach. As Marcus Smart was challenged with dipping around another Gobert screen, Robert Williams III could be found just inside the free throw line.
A harder hedge seemed like the appropriate coverage, but Stevens also criticized the point-of-attack defenders who, in his view, didn’t fight over screens hard enough, thereby putting the bigs in a compromising situation.
“You’re gonna have moments where they make tough shots,” Stevens said. “But we had too many moments where we hit screens at the top of the key and they made us pay. And we ended up going under a screen when we need to chase and challenge. We end up not getting high enough on their hip and chasing and making it as difficult as possible.”
While the Jazz spent the fourth quarter reigniting their top-shelf offense, Boston only fell behind because its season-long fourth quarter woes came alive once again.
The Celtics were just 3-of-9 on threes and attempted two free throws in the final frame, missing one. Utah’s sparkling 3-point efficiency was complimented with 11 makes from the free throw line on 11 attempts, allowing them to hang 40 on their opponent and outscore them by 10.
“There’s a reason why the rest of us don’t have their record,” Stevens said. “That’s the reality of it. We don’t make people pay as much as they make everyone else pay.”