Maxi Kleber (42), Sterling Brown (0) and Willie Cauley-Stein (33) of the Dallas Mavericks defend while Utah Jazz striker Eric Paschall (0), in the first half of an NBA basketball game in Dallas on Wednesday looking for a shot, Oct. 6, 2021. (Michael Ainsworth, Associated Press)
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SALT LAKE CITY – Quin Snyder’s long list of inactive people raised the question.
Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Mike Conley, Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic, Hassan Whiteside and Rudy Gay – a combination that could, by itself, serve as a seven-person line-up – all sat in Utah’s second preseason game on Wednesday. So, coach, what’s the plan?
“Of course we have a lot of respect for Dallas, but there are just other things you want to get out of the game,” said Snyder.
One of those things was clearly not a victory.
The Mavericks, behind a stellar performance by Luka Doncic in the first half, beat Jazz 111-101 in Dallas on Wednesday. And while there was never a meaningful pre-season result, that doesn’t mean the exhibitions lack relevance.
With Utah missing a good chunk of its core lineup, Snyder was able to experiment with something seldom seen in Utah: a small ball center. The Jazz started the line-up of Trent Forrest, Jordan Clarkson, Miye Oni, Royce O’Neale and Eric Paschall. And since Paschall isn’t known for his rim protection skills, Utah has switched everything.
So how did it go?
There were some difficult moments: Clarkson didn’t seem comfortable guarding the post, Doncic was just being mean to the Utah B-Team at times, and Paschall was struggling to keep the watch in front of him.
But there was also a lot of good things: Oni and Forrest held their own at the post, which allowed them to swarm ball handlers for sales; and Utah was good at knowing when to turn and when to stay home, especially considering the team had never done this before.
“I found our activity really good,” said Snyder of the changing defense. “There have been a few times when we have lost our communications and we haven’t gotten under the roller. But I thought that by and large I hadn’t done one through five … we really made up for it with our activity.”
So was this a one time experiment or will we see it again when the games start counting? Gay played in a small ball center for the San Antonio Spurs, and his value to the team will be much higher if he can fill a similar role this season. His perimeter defense is way better than Paschall’s too, so it stands to reason that the jazz will look better with him in the lineup – and he could provide a much-needed look with the playoffs running around.
There was one other thing that came out of the jazz that occupied a good chunk of their roster: Jared Butler got a lot of playing time. And with apologies to Mitchell, Conley and Gobert, that’s what people wanted to see preseason, especially with the rookie’s way of playing.
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Butler followed up his promising debut on Monday with an even better performance on Wednesday. He led Jazz with 22 points in the 9-of-18 shooting and had four assists.
Yes, it’s just preseason, but there’s just so much about his game that feels like it’s carrying over into the regular season. Like when he meandered around Doncic in the paint and hit Kristaps Porzingis to the brim in a quick crossover. It was a sequence shot with a less impressive screen by Udoka Azubuike (who still has a long way to go before jazz can remember to play it in real minutes).
Imagine what he could do with it if Gobert sets picks for him.
Butler everything seemed easy. He manipulated the defenders with slight hesitation to get in the paint for easy scoring opportunities, and he hit the defenders with dribbling moves after dribbling moves to make way for a 3-pointer backward step. He looked like someone who could contribute immediately.
The best part? He did everything in the stands with his parents and former college teammates.
“It was just phenomenal to know they are here and I played a good game too, which helped me a lot,” said Butler.
Butler gave his performance a 7.5; he gave himself a 6 on Monday.
The opportunity presented to him on a deep jazz team remains to be seen, but he not only knocked on the door, he kicked it in.