Utah Jazz vs. Toronto Raptors: Keys to the Game

Facing a tough opponent in the Toronto Raptors will make it quite challenging for the Utah Jazz to avoid falling into a three-game losing streak.

Well, things have taken a sudden downturn in Jazz Nation following the Utah Jazz’s embarrassing loss in Oakland on Tuesday which was followed up by a fourth quarter collapse at home on Wednesday against the hapless Sacramento Kings who were without second-leading scorer Rudy Gay.

Sure, the Jazz had their fair share of injuries as well, but to give up a 20-point second half lead like they did was completely unacceptable, especially to a team of Sacramento’s caliber. In all honesty, it was the kind of late-game performance that was very remiss of last year’s Jazz squad that was infamous for choking down the stretch.

Utah has been relatively solid at closing games out in the fourth quarter so far this year despite giving up big leads in previous contests, so the last minute loss was a bit of a surprise.

Nevertheless, the results are what they are and Utah who has dropped two straight games and now stands at 18-12 is in need of a comeback game in a big way. Unfortunately, their next opponent, the Toronto Raptors, is far from a pushover. In fact, if it weren’t for LeBron James and the mighty Cavaliers, we may very well be talking about the Raptors making a run to the NBA Finals.

Toronto comes into the game with an impressive 20-8 record and sits just 1.5 games behind the first place Cavaliers. They have a prolific offense that scores the third most points of any team in the league and boast one of the NBA’s most dynamic backcourt duos of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan who average 21.3 and 27.9 points, respectively. They also play with an offensive efficiency that ranks at the top of the league, even beating out the Golden State Warriors.

Thus the Jazz will have their work cut out, especially if they continue to see their wing depth decimated by injury and illness. Of course George Hill and Alec Burks have missed extended time, but most recently the Jazz were also without Dante Exum who was dealing with knee tendinitis and Rodney Hood who was suffering from flu-like symptoms.

Thus they will need their guards to step up big time if they have any chance of beating the Raptors. The Jazz are currently on just their second losing streak of the season as the only other time they have lost consecutive games was in a four-game losing streak in mid-November.

If they want to avoid increasing the streak to a painful third straight loss and reassert themselves as a top force in the league, here’s the keys they’ll need to focus on the most.

Key Match-up – Gordon Hayward and DeMarre Carroll

Honestly, I would like to pin Rodney Hood and DeMar DeRozan as the key match-up and would absolutely LOVE to have George Hill back to slot him and Lowry as the two-man bout to watch, but unfortunately with both of their health statuses up in the air, I’m going to go with another intriguing match-up that Utah will need to be sure to emphasize: Gordon Hayward and DeMarre Carroll.

Former Jazzman DeMarre Carroll has build a reputation for himself as a lockdown defender and a hard worker that isn’t afraid to do the dirty work. As a member of the Jazz he earned himself the nickname of “Junkyard Dog” and it’s been a fitting mantra ever since. As such, it will be thrilling to see him matched up against Utah’s leading scorer, Gordon Hayward.

Dec 12, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors forward DeMarre Carroll (5) celebrates with guard Kyle Lowry (7) after a basket against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first half at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

As I predicted he would, Hayward was able to bounce back after his disappointing performance against the Warriors with a 28-point, 10-rebound effort against the Kings. Although the team fell short, it was great to see Hayward get back in his groove.

Yet he will be hard pressed to duplicate that performance against Carroll who is a much tougher defender than any of the small forwards that Sacramento was able to roll out and is also capable of being a versatile scorer. While his numbers haven’t been quite as good since his breakout years in Atlanta, he’s still averaging 10.2 points per game while shooting a respectable 36.4 percent from deep.

And part of the reason why Carroll’s numbers are down is because he is now on an offense that allows Lowry and DeRozan to shoulder the lion’s share of points and often times his role isn’t necessarily to score but rather to facilitate and defend. Nevertheless, he’s more than capable of being an effective offensive weapon, so the Jazz can’t fall asleep on him.

Frankly, despite Carroll’s top-notch defense, I fully expect Hayward to outscore his former teammate. However, Carroll will win this match-up if he can frustrate Hayward on offense and force him into an inefficient night. If Hayward keeps his composure and performs as he did against the Kings, it will be dramatically raise Utah’s chances of winning.

Key Stat – Turnovers

For the second time in a row, I’m calling turnovers as the key stat that Utah needs to focus on. In the loss to the Warriors, they turned the ball over a painful 23 times, their worst mark of the season so far. In last night’s game against the Kings, they did a much better job with just 11, but they still lost the turnover battle and have struggled to force turnovers all year long as they rank dead last in the league in opponent turnovers per game.

And a huge reason why Toronto has the most efficient offense in the league as I mentioned earlier is the fact that they rarely turn over the ball. In fact, they average the least amount of turnovers in the NBA at 11.2 per game.

Mar 2, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Utah Jazz guard Shelving Mack (8) moves against Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) in the third quarter at Air Canada Centre. Raptors beat Jazz 104 – 94. Mandatory Credit: Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

Thus that has all the sounds of a disaster if Utah is unable to get their turnover issues in check. The Jazz started out the year relatively solid at taking care of the ball but after recent performances have dropped all the way down to 12th in the league, committing 13 turnovers per contest.

So with all that stacked against them, it would be quite the feat if they somehow managed to win the turnover battle against Toronto. Since it’s been such a strength for the Raptors this season, though, disrupting them in this area may be one of the only ways that the Jazz stand a chance of beating this tough Toronto squad.

Key Performer – Rudy Gobert

If Toronto has one major weakness, it’s their presence in the paint. Their starting center Jonas Valanciunas isn’t bad by any means, but he simply isn’t the force that Rudy Gobert is down low. In fact, he’s not even close.

And seeing Rudy log yet another incredible performance in last night’s loss, putting up a double-double once again and holding DeMarcus Cousins to a dismal 5-of-18 shooting night would make it seem pretty clear that he should be able to have a hay day against the much weaker Valanciunas.

Nov 18, 2015; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas (17) and forward James Johnson (3) box out Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) in the fourth quarter at EnergySolutions Arena. The Utah Jazz defeated the Toronto Raptors 93-89. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Nevertheless, the Raptors center is a physical player and capable of being somewhat of an irritant, so Gobert will need to be on his A-game. Yet, over the last month and a half virtually no one has been able to stop Gobert and I don’t expect Valanciunas to be the one to start. Barring a big surprise, Rudy should be able to continue his double-double streak with ease.

Prediction – Raptors 105, Jazz 98

While both Rudy Gobert and Gordon Hayward played great in the recent loss to the Kings, it ended up still not being enough. As Utah slogs through a never-ending slew of injuries and given their play of late I’m feeling a bit under-confident of their chances of beating a team as top-notch as the Raptors.

I really hate to do this, but I’m going to reverse my prediction from earlier in the week and slot the Raptors as the winners of Friday’s game. I’d love to see the Jazz bounce back, but they’ve just been too inconsistent of late and simply can’t find a way to get healthy.

Luckily, after the contest against Toronto, the Jazz will find themselves with an extremely light schedule that features three lottery teams in the Lakers, 76ers and Suns to close out 2016.

And though the Jazz have once again fallen into a bit of a mini-slump, I have a hard time believing that they won’t find a way to return to their winning ways against opponents of that caliber.

And maybe, just maybe, they can finally get healthy to start out the new year.

All stats courtesy of NBA.com and ESPN.com