The Utah Jazz need to find a closer

Apr 23, 2017; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Jazz forward Joe Johnson (6) and Utah Jazz guard Rodney Hood (5) celebrate after a Johnson three point basket during the fourth quarter against the LA Clippers in game four of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Utah Jazz won the game 105-98. Mandatory Credit: Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 23, 2017; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Jazz forward Joe Johnson (6) and Utah Jazz guard Rodney Hood (5) celebrate after a Johnson three point basket during the fourth quarter against the LA Clippers in game four of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Utah Jazz won the game 105-98. Mandatory Credit: Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports /

Joe Johnson saved the Utah Jazz several times with his late-game heroics this season, particularly in the playoffs, but he won’t be around forever. Can someone else become a go-to guy or will the Jazz have to acquire a closer?

When national NBA media people are talking about the Utah Jazz, it’s not uncommon to hear them rave about the young talent, length and athleticism, or great coaching they already have. It’s not uncommon to hear Utah’s rowdy fan base get recognized as one of the loudest in the league, as well as the most loyal.

It’s not uncommon to hear how Dennis Lindsey is building a San Antonio Spurs-like culture in Salt Lake City and is setting the Jazz up for success years down the road either.

The caveat to all the good things said about the Jazz is the doubts that they are not a championship team, but just a good playoff team.

By now most Jazz fans have already heard “Is Gordon Hayward good enough to be the number one option and carry the Jazz through the playoffs?”, or “Do the Jazz have a go-to guy when the game is on the line?”.

These are very good questions to ask, and as you look down the roster there are several guys capable of stepping up and playing clutch basketball if needed. For example:

  • George Hill has hit several clutch shots in his career, and you can find a few of them here, here and here, but he has never been considered a “go-to” guy. Having said that it’s nice to have a veteran on the team with a calm mentality during intense moments of the fourth quarter.
  • In February of 2016 Rodney Hood hit a game-tying  three-pointer on the road against the Dallas Mavericks to force overtime, and the Jazz eventually prevailed thanks to Hayward’s game-winner. Hood also hit this epic transition three against Dallas last December to ice the game.
  • Favors had a baseline slam dunk to beat Houston and completed a three-point play against the Indiana Pacers in O.T in the 2015-16 season.
  • Whenever the game is on the line, and the Jazz have one more possession to win it, Quin Snyder has elected to have Joe Ingles be the baseline inbounder out of the timeout. He also hit this dagger three in Los Angeles against the Lakers earlier this season.
  • Rudy Gobert used to have to be taken out of tight games because his free throw shooting was a liability, but now he’s grown into an adequate shooter from the charity stripe and is a great rim rolling threat. On March 5 against the Kings, Rudy hit the game-tying shot and deflected the inbound pass on the other side of the court to force overtime, and eventually hit the game-winning tip in off of George Hill’s air ball floater.

Coach Snyder mentioned in post-game interviews following Game 1 of the Clippers series that they do have two go-to guys in the clutch: Gordon Hayward and Joe Johnson. And rightfully so, Hayward has hit his fair share of clutch shots in his seven years with the Jazz, and Johnson has been given the nickname “Joe Jesus” because he has a knack for being a savior in the fourth quarter.

However, pushing 36 years old, Johnson is no spring chicken, and he won’t be able to save the Jazz with his late-game heroics forever. Hayward is probably the second-best clutch player on the team behind Johnson, but he seems to be hit and miss with the game on the line.

Like I said earlier, Hayward has hit his fair share of clutch shots with the Jazz, such as step-back jumpers or off-ball cuts leading to dunks to extend the late lead as a young player, and has game-winners against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Mavs the past couple years. But there’s no looking past the two close losses the Jazz had to the Warriors at home in the 2015-16 regular season.

Both times the Jazz had the ball on the last possession with a chance to take the lead. The first time Rodney Hood missed a semi-open angle-right three, and the second time Shelvin Mack missed a floater, which resulted in the Warriors gaining possession and eventually winning the game.

Why wasn’t the ball in Hayward’s hands those times? Why was he too passive in the big moment?

Similar to his scoring average, Hayward seems to have improved his clutch play every year since he’s come into the league, but he is still one tier away from measuring up with Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard as far as clutch play. All of those players are able to strap their team on their back and pretty much win the game themselves in the fourth quarter.

When the Jazz play these teams in close games, there seems to be doubt that Hayward himself can go toe-to-toe with them. If the Jazz plan to advance deeper than the second round of the playoffs, they better find someone who can go toe-to-toe with these superstars.

The team concept of lots of passes and cuts doesn’t work as well in the playoffs. In a seven-game series, the opponents are familiar with each other and have scouted each other out so well, that it’s not uncommon to see more isolation plays.

While it’s nice to have Johnson in these situations, he’s on the downward slope of his career and won’t be around forever. He can’t be playing these heavy fourth quarter minutes all the way to an NBA Finals; his body just won’t hold up.

Having said all of this, can the Jazz develop a closer on the roster, or do they have to go acquire one via trade, the draft or free agency? I will give you a non-scientific answer that is my opinion.

I believe Hayward will continue to grow as a number one scoring option and a go-to guy in the clutch. While he may never measure up with Kobe, MJ or other NBA superstars in the clutch, he’s still not a bad option. I also believe Hood can become a closer; one of the reasons the Jazz signed Johnson last summer was to have him mentor Hood.

Rodney already has great footwork, shooting form and elevation on his shot; it seems very plausible that with time and experience he can become a deadly threat in the clutch, maybe even better than Hayward.

For more on Rodney read his 2016-17 season review by our own Hayden Van de Maat.

More from The J-Notes

The Utah Jazz are a team on the upswing, cracking 50 wins, winning the Northwest Division and advancing to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2010. While there still may be questions on whether or not they have a championship core, this clutch player gene has been blown out of proportion by the media.

The Jazz have set themselves up with great young talent that is well-coached, and has great team chemistry on and off the floor. Whether they can turn it into a championship has more to do with the pending free agencies of Hayward, Hill and Ingles, and the expiring contracts of Favors, Hood and Dante Exum next year.