If there was ever a preseason game to care about, it's this one. The Utah Jazz will likely be who the Phoenix Suns are battling with for the 8 seed and this is a great opportunity to get a look at them.
The Suns host the Jazz from
U.S Airways Center Takling Stick Resort Arena at 7 p.m. tonight. The game can be streamed on Suns.com if you are within 75 miles of the arena and will also be on the radio on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.
While playoff races were going down in both conferences, the Jazz were one of the best teams in the NBA in the second half of last season. Utah had the best team DefRtg after the All-Star break and it wasn't close. Their 94.8 rating was nearly a full 5 points better than the team in second, the Memphis Grizzlies at 99.4. For comparisons sake, the three best DefRtg's of the season were the Golden State Warriors at 98.3, the Milwaukee Bucks at 99.3 and the San Antonio Spurs at 99.6.
Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors had legitimate cases for All-NBA spots last season. Hayward has point forward skills mixed with a great stroke that make him a dangerous all-around offensive player. Physicality is the next big step in his game and Hayward addressed that by adding some serious muscle this summer. You'll remember Favors from the beginning of last season when he shellacked the Suns for 32 easy points. Favors is finally coming into his own after five seasons in the NBA, but the scary part is that the Georgia Tech product is still only 24 years old.
Of course, we shouldn't be talking about the Jazz without discussing Rudy Gobert. Among players who defended at least five field goal attempts at the rim last season, Gobert had the best opp. FG% at the rim in the NBA at 40.4% (Favors was 5th at 43.8%). Gobert is the next elite defensive player and just turned 23 last summer. He gives the Jazz a real big 3.
Even with Dante Exum going down in the offseason with a torn ACL, the Jazz still have good depth. Alec Burks can absolutely be the 4th-to-5th best player on a great team, Rodney Hood was one of the best kept secrets in the NBA last year, new guy Raul Neto is basketball twitter's new favorite player, and former Tucson product Bryce Cotton can light it up. Tibor Pleiss and Trey Lyles are also worth keeping an eye on.
The one thing Jeff Hornacek seemed to focus on in the first preseason game was lineup combinations. Sonny Weems, P.J. Tucker, and Tyson Chandler only played 30 minutes combined because either Hornacek knows the flexibility he has with them (Tucker) or their roles are very cut and dry (Weems/Chandler).
So instead what we saw was Jon Leuer at center, Devin Booker at small forward, and a sneak peek of the possible staggering strategy with Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight.
Leuer has that Brandon Wright effect where he's just always in the right spots and doing the right things because he comes from a great, well-coached team. Despite what you may think about him as a player, he plays strong and fearlessly on the glass. That's what practicing against Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol will do to you. If he can continue to play that well physically (13 rebounds) and hit threes (6-8), he could definitely see time at the 4 and 5. Seeing a lineup of Bledsoe/Booker/Warren/Mirza/Leuer clear out the lane for Warren to give him a full isolation had me feeling all kinds of ways.
Booker at small forward is more of a way to get Archie Goodwin time on the floor in my opinion and I'm not sure why they'd even need to do that. My theory on that is it's a way for the team to play Booker when Weems is in at the 2 and Goodwin just saw the time because it's preseason. Booker once again moved around the floor like he belonged and got an awesome first-hand experience defensively facing a very similar player in Marco Belinelli on Wednesday. I'm sure he picked up a thing or two from the former Spur.
Bledsoe came out first for Weems in the first quarter and then later on started with Bledsoe and Booker as the backcourt. This is perfect because Bledsoe doesn't have nearly as much value as Knight does as a 2 guard with his shooting so Bledsoe should be playing primarily as a point and you replace him with an even better shooter than Knight in Booker. That allows Warren to get extended minutes and not have to worry about spacing.