Last Friday, the Atlanta Hawks and Utah Jazz battled to a halftime score of 40-39, inspiring images of the mid-2000s NBA defensive grind. Everyone was missing shots, until they weren't.
Both eventually found their groove with Utah escaping Atlanta with a 116-98 win. They meet again tomorrow at Salt Lake at 10:00 AM on NBA TV Philippines via the new Smart GigaPlay app or Cignal TV, with both teams going through interesting starts to the season.
The Hawks, who were two wins away from the NBA Finals last season, are 4-6 with several disappointing losses under their belt. In theory, they should be much better as they are starting the season much healthier. De’Andre Hunter has started every game after playing just nine last season due to a meniscus injury. Clint Capela started the season on a minutes restriction to ease his recovering Achilles along, but he’s blown through the roof of those minutes caps already for a couple of weeks.
The Hawks are also deep at almost every position, but they’ve been inconsistent at best. Hunter and Cam Reddish have each had their moments, but have struggled to put together consecutive games of solid production. John Collins has been patient in finding his spots on offense, but he too has been borderline passive in some games.
Trae Young, the Hawks’ All-Star point guard, has been the biggest question mark on a game-to-game basis. Chalk it up to the league’s reworked rules that seemed to have nerfed most of the tactics Young used to bait fouls last year. Young’s free throw attempts per game are down from 8.7 last season to 5.8 this year. He’s also shooting a career-worst 41 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from deep. Great players always adapt to new rules and Young will inevitably adjust – whether that means finding a new ploy to get his charity attempts back up or just simply finding better shots to increase his efficiency, instead of trying to draw fouls.
Despite Young’s shooting woes, the Hawks are still ranked 10th in offensive rating, but have fallen to 26th in defensive rating. There’s plenty of room for Atlanta to improve, and they need to start finding their groove soon. They might not be able to afford waiting until the All-Star break again to switch gears with the Eastern Conference loaded from top to bottom.
The Jazz, on the other hand, are still chugging along like the consistent regular-season beasts they’ve been for the past five seasons. They’re third in offensive rating and seventh in defensive rating, making them the third best team by efficiency just behind the Golden State Warriors and the Miami Heat.
Utah, again, is doing all this by shooting a ton of 3s (they lead the league again in 3-pt shot frequency at 49 percent) and by forcing teams out of their best options on defense (they’re seventh in the league in defensive field goal percentage at 43 percent).
Brilliance-by-committee has always been the modus in Utah. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are the All-Stars on this team, but their depth is what makes them so hard to beat in the regular season. Jordan Clarkson has been streaky, but he’s carried the Utah offense twice on the road with Mitchell sitting out. Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, and Royce O’Neale have been low-key, as usual, but have done all the little things that make this Jazz team work. Even newcomer Hassan Whiteside has found his niche as Gobert’s backup, making sure the Jazz have 48 minutes of solid rim protection and rebounding.
We’re still around six months away from the playoffs so we have to wait six months more until we start questioning whether this Jazz ethos can win playoff games. For now, the Jazz are in their element, crushing teams in the regular season.
Tomorrow’s matchup means a lot more to the Hawks than to the Jazz. A lot of early frustrations could be wiped away with a solid road win against one of the best home teams in the league. Just for the tension, the supreme defense, and perplexed looks at the referees, this Jazz-Hawks game deserves a watch.