The Whiteboard: 3 things we learned from Jazz-Suns showdown

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Wednesday’s epic showdown between the Utah Jazz and the Phoenix Suns not only featured the top two teams in the Western Conference standings, but arguably the two best teams in the NBA to this point in the season.

Heading into this highly awaited matchup that somehow still lived up to the hype, the Jazz held the league’s best record (38-12), best point differential (plus-9.7), best Net Rating (9.5), third-best offense (117.1 points per 100 possessions) and third-best defense (107.6). The Suns, meanwhile, ranked second in record (35-14), second in point differential (plus-6.9), second in Net Rating (7.0), seventh in offensive rating (115.5) and fifth in defensive rating (108.5).

It was a battle of Western juggernauts, and in an overtime duel, the Suns ultimately made enough plays to come away with a 117-113 victory. It marked Phoenix’s seventh straight victory and pulled them within 1.5 games of Utah for the No. 1 seed out West.

The question is, in this heated, back-and-forth affair, what did we learn from perhaps the best game of the regular season thus far? Here are the three biggest lessons.

3. The battle of the midrange was the difference

Heading into the matchup, the Jazz ranked first in 3-point attempts per game and second in 3-point percentage. Given that Suns head coach Monty Williams was able to rattle off Utah’s average number of makes and attempts per game when asked about his opponent’s long-range prowess before the game, it’s safe to say Phoenix’s game plan was focused on making those looks tough for an offense that specializes in ball movement designed to generate open 3s.

“You just try to stop them from getting them off as best you can,” Williams said. “They’ve proven over the course of this season that their [3-point] averages are what they are.”

When Utah has defenses rotating, the ball usually locates an open shooter, and they make you pay for it. Much like their first meeting in December, Phoenix countered this by sticking with drop coverage in the pick-and-roll, having Deandre Ayton hang back while the guards and wings being screened fought extra hard to get through either Rudy Gobert or Derrick Favors without giving the Jazz ball-handlers room to operate. This kept Ayton in the paint to obstruct Gobert’s path to the basket for rim runs, and between Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Cam Johnson, Torrey Craig, Jevon Carter and Cam Payne, the Suns had the personnel to stick with Utah’s guards and wings without triggering the kinds of defensive rotations that lead to open 3s.

The Jazz missed some decent looks, going 11-for-44 from 3-point range on the night, but the Suns’ defense bothered them on a lot of those contested looks, holding them to just 40 first-half points and forcing many of those 3s to come off the dribble.

“I thought the ones we gave up on the backside, when we got too high up in pick-and-roll coverage and let Gobert get behind us, we had to come help and we gave up — those are the ones that you hate, ’cause those are the catch-and-shoot ones,” Williams explained. “But other than that, to force teams to shoot off-the-dribbles 3s and contest them without fouling is a huge win for us.”

The Suns got back to basics and did enough to keep the Jazz uncomfortable, even after the 3s started opening up in a 38-point third quarter. Utah was simply unable to make Phoenix pay for its drop coverage with any type of midrange threat from its guards, especially with Gobert and Favors not posing any sort of pick-and-pop threat.

The Jazz went 4-for-10 on midrange jumpers outside the lane, and on the other end, Paul and Booker picked apart a defense that specializes in preventing 3s and layups with a barrage of midrange pull-ups. The Suns shot 13-for-27 on those midrange shots outside the paint, with the two stars going 10-for-20. This should be no surprise for the league’s most efficient midrange team (49.1 percent) taking on a defense that allows the second-highest percentage of its opponents’ looks to come from that exact area of the floor.

Phoenix’s 61-45 rebounding advantage (including 16-7 on the offensive glass) provided a few more possessions that became precious in such a close contest, but their drop coverage prevented too many defensive rotations leading to high-quality 3s. The Jazz never fully countered, and on the other end, the Suns’ midrange specialists were more than happy to take the exact shot Utah’s defense prefers to concede.

2. Jazz still looking to get over that hump

No Jazz fan should be concerned about losing in overtime against the NBA’s second-best team. They still have the league’s best record and point differential, and their 21-8 record against teams at or above .500 proves Utah is capable of contending with any team in a seven-game series.

However, it’s also telling that they’ve failed in three of their biggest road tests of the season, losing to the Philadelphia 76ers, LA Clippers and now the Suns. All three of those games were incredibly close; two went to overtime, and the third was a four-point loss.

Even so, the Jazz are only 12-7 against teams with a top-10 point differential this season, and they’re only 2-3 against such opponents since March 1. So no matter what this team does during the regular season, people will continue to doubt their playoff prospects until they start finding a way to get over that hump. The Jazz have fizzled out too many times in the postseason to be trusted just yet, and even without James Harden in the West to torment them anymore, “prove it” games like Wednesday will continue to be the barometer for this unexpected title contender.

1. Suns may not be an overlooked contender for much longer

Much like the Jazz, the Suns won’t be picked by very many people in a seven-game series against a healthy Los Angeles Lakers, LA Clippers or even Denver Nuggets squad. Phoenix has proven postseason warriors in Paul and Crowder, but when four of the team’s seven best players will be suiting up in their first playoff games this summer, it’s hard to earn the benefit of the doubt ahead of time.

“We needed a game like that where guys had to play heavy minutes, the intensity of it, the crowd was great,” Chris Paul said. “Just that energy, we haven’t played too many games like that, so it’s good to get a few games like that under our belt going into this stretch run before the playoffs.”

Statement wins like Wednesday definitely help, and despite their tendency to play down to their competition, the Suns have been racking those kinds of victories up all season long. Aside from the obvious advantage of winning the tiebreaker over Utah, Phoenix’s latest victory helped Monty Williams’ squad improve to 18-6 against teams at or above .500 — the best win percentage against such opponents in the NBA. They’re also 10-4 against teams with a top-10 point differential, including a league-best 8-1 since the start of February.

The Suns have a top-10 offense, top-10 defense and are gaining ground on the Jazz for the NBA’s best record. They have shooters, two dangerous closers and plenty of defenders versatile enough to cover multiple positions. Booker is right to be more focused on getting wins than he is on any MVP chatter, because this team won’t be taken seriously until we see how he, Ayton, Bridges and Johnson perform in their first playoff series once the pressure’s really on.

Monty knows that, which is why he isn’t abiding any buzz about the Suns gunning for that No. 1 spot in the West just yet.

“This team has to go through these types of experiences to win big,” he said. “Being No. 1 in the West would be a huge accomplishment for us, but it’s just not our focus. We just want to win every game we can, and if that means we’re No. 1 in the West, then great.”

For now, the Suns are doing all they can to prove themselves as legitimate Finals contenders. With a few more wins of this caliber where the youngsters shine (and all but Bridges did on Wednesday), it won’t be long before people stop sleeping on Phoenix.

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