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Conversing with the enemy: A Sixers-Jazz preview with Dan Clayton

Getting a little insight about Tuesday’s opponent.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Moving forward, Liberty Ballers will conduct a question-and-answer session with someone possessing in-depth knowledge of the Philadelphia 76ers’ imminent opponent. Up next is Dan Clayton, who covers the Utah Jazz for Salt City Hoops.

What’s one key matchup you’re keeping tabs on for this game?

Somehow, Joel Embiid and Rudy Gobert have only faced each other six times in their careers, so it’s really unfortunate we don’t get to see that matchup play out on Tuesday evening. In fact, Philly being down four major rotation contributors makes it a little harder to identify the matchup that’s going to define the dynamic of the game. But Tobias Harris will play, and he’s been mostly excellent this year when he has been available, averaging 21-9-4. He’s also a specific type of player the Jazz are least equipped to deal with: a long, scoring wing. Utah signed Rudy Gay to help them deal specifically with the Tobias Harris types in the league, but Gay is still working his way back from injury. The assignment will probably fall largely on the shoulders of Royce O’Neale and Bojan Bogdanovic. The former is smaller, but tough and physical. The latter matches up a little better size-wise, but isn’t exactly a designated stopper.

What’s your assessment on Utah’s season thus far and its outlook moving forward?

The Jazz are going to be good. Even after a rough 1-4 stretch, they still have the second-best efficiency differential (garbage time adjusted) and most predictive systems have them finishing first or second in the West. That said, it would be hard to deny that they have underperformed at 8-5. As I wrote Monday at Salt City Hoops, the biggest difference between their 7-1 start and the 1-4 funk since has been rim defense (mostly in transition and/or during Hassan Whiteside’s minutes) and opponent three-point shooting. Utah also hasn’t tapped into last year’s historically prolific three-point shooting. But their offense is still working, broadly speaking. Once the threes start falling at the usual rate, Utah’s offense — already second in the league — should be nearly unstoppable.

Biggest pleasant surprise of the season?

It’s not surprising per se, but Donovan Mitchell appears to be taking another superstar step as he expands his role in the offense. He’s tied with Chris Paul for fifth in Dunks and Threes’ EPM stat, and FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR has him as the seventh-most valuable offensive player in the league. In particular, the minutes with Mitchell on the court and no Rudy Gobert or Mike Conley have been phenomenal, with a plus-13 margin per 100 possessions. Gobert has also been doing a tremendous job protecting the rim, even by his own lofty standards. Opponents are shooting 41.9 percent in the restricted area with Gobert nearby, which would be his best figure so far in his career. Since Gobert entered the league, only Giannis Antetokounmpo (41.7 percent during his DPOY season) has finished a season with a rim defense figure that low on 3.0 attempts per game or more.

Biggest disappointment of the season?

Several Jazz players have started the season in at least a mild shooting slump. But the one guy who just can’t seem to get it going — outside of some individual explosive quarters — is Jordan Clarkson. He was Utah’s second-leading scorer last season, and adds some value as a possession eater, even when his efficiency is around average. But so far this season, he just hasn’t had it. He’s shooting 24 percent from three, has the worst scoring efficiency of any Jazz rotation player (47.2 percent true shooting), and has also struggled with turnovers and defense. When he’s on, the Jazz are nearly unstoppable, but so far he has struggled greatly.

What’s one thing Sixers fans should watch for in this game?

It’s all about Philly’s offensive end tonight. Despite Utah’s ups and downs on offense, it’s won 90 percent of games the past two seasons when its overall defensive rating is 110 or below. If Utah is able to slow the Sixers down on defense, they usually can find enough points to win games. In particular, halfcourt defense tends to be a big bellwether for the Jazz. And if the Jazz are getting stops, they’ll have a chance to run back at the Sixers’ league-worst transition defense (138.8 points per 100 transition plays, outside of garbage time). So, Utah’s defense will likely decide the game.