After two consecutive seasons of losing in the second round to the Western Conference’s top team, it’s clear what the Jazz’s next step is: defeating the Houston Rockets and/or the Golden State Warriors in a seven-game series.
It’s not just those two teams' tremendous offensive talent that frustrates the Jazz. As much as anything, it’s their defense. Utah is used to opening small advantages in space that turn into big advantages through repeated screens and movement. But when the Rockets and Warriors switch on defense, as they usually do, they maintain their ownership of their space but instead change which player is defending each part of it. They’ll take their chances that the mismatches will be less of a problem than open shots.
Not all of the league’s top defenses are switching ones, of course. So-called “drop-big” teams have had a lot of success, too, including the top two defenses in the league: Utah and Boston. But as Jazz head coach Quin Snyder points out, if Houston and Golden State are the best teams, “those are the teams you have to go through in order to win at the highest level.”
So it’s been a top priority of Snyder’s summer to figure out the best ways to deal with switching defenses, and how to teach his team to take advantage of those situations. Here’s some of what the Jazz are working on.
1. Find the big man down low
This is the option your dad screams at the television. “They have James Harden guarding Derrick Favors!,” he yells. “Give Fave the ball!”
Here’s the thing: it doesn’t actually work that well. Last season, Harden allowed only 0.73 points per possession when defending post-ups, and as you can imagine, most of those were by big men trying to force their advantage down low. As Snyder points out, "Particularly with Harden and Chris Paul, Paul is such a cerebral player, and both are so strong, they can guard the post.
That’s not to say that the Jazz can’t use their big men having a height advantage down low. Passing the ball in the right spot, especially when the big men are on the move, is critical. “When you’ve got a smaller player guarding a bigger player down low, the ball has to be thrown high where only that player can get it, and then there’s a good opportunity to draw a foul,” Snyder said.
2. Own the glass
Here’s another reason not to post up big men when they’re being guarded by smalls: usually, that means the big will have someone between him and the basket, a man in perfect box-out position should a rebound be required.
Instead, that big man — in the Jazz’s case, Favors or Rudy Gobert — can focus on being in the perfect position to get the offensive rebound, keeping it high above their defender, and finishing for the easy putback. As Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey noted, some European teams have great success “crushing” switching defenses by using this tactic.
The average EuroLeague team last year got 29 percent of available offensive rebounds, whereas the average NBA team only got 22 percent. The best NBA offensive rebounding team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, only got 27.5 percent of offensive rebounds; the Jazz ranked 17th with a 21.5 percentage. If the Jazz can catch up, that’d be a few extra shots every game, leading to a few extra points.
Of course, it’s a trade-off: the Jazz don’t want to lose their excellent transition defense, either. So Snyder says the Jazz’s improvement will be mostly about getting Favors and Gobert in better offensive rebounding positions, with Jae Crowder or Thabo Sefolosha crashing the boards once in a while in strategic ways.
This has been a Jazz staple of the last couple of seasons, and it’s in all parts of their offense, not just while switching. Essentially, Snyder wants his players to be on the move when they catch the ball, and continue their momentum as they attack the basket.
Most NBA defenders are very solid when they’re asked to defend a stationary player of any size. When that player is on the move, though, it’s a lot more difficult to stay in front. And that’s especially true in the moment right as the defense is switching: usually, the defender has to change directions very quickly as he stops following one player and starts following another.
You can see that at work in these clips from Game 1 of the Houston series. In the first clip, Joe Ingles catches the ball on the run and forces the switch, but hesitates to assess the situation. He ends up with a contested jumper. In the second clip, he continues his momentum the whole time, and is able to get all the way to the rim.
As Donovan Mitchell told me, one goal of the Jazz is to make attacking switches second nature. That way, there won’t be an acclimation process during Game 1 of their series against Houston or Golden State.
4. Draw a foul
Another frequent consequence of mismatches is fouls drawn by hapless defenders who are put in bad spots. The Jazz want to be crafty about drawing these fouls and getting to the free-throw line for efficient scoring.
Ricky Rubio might legitimately be the best player at this in the NBA when compared with his skill set. Rubio’s shot is generally regarded as a weakness, as is his finishing at the rim. Generally, if you don’t foul him and he keeps the ball, it’s a win for the opposing defense. But he is so incredibly good at drawing off-balance fouls anyway, especially when the Jazz are in the bonus.
And this tactic has been emphasized in Jazz film discussions so far. Mitchell and Snyder both mentioned a foul Mitchell drew against Perth as an example of how referees have been instructed to call the game tightly, in accordance with their “freedom of movement” points of emphasis for this season. When defending switches, players often use their hands to minimize their disadvantages, but if those are called fouls more frequently, the offense can get to the line and score anyway.
5. Screen your own man
While the point of switching is to avoid being impacted by screens, there’s a sneaky way the offense can get a screen in anyway: rather than screen someone else’s defender, screen your own!
This is a tricky thing to do, because it has to come at exactly the right time, and in a situation you know the defense will definitely switch. If they just run a more standard defense, well, screening your own man just looks silly. And in general, I haven’t seen the Jazz do a ton of this: it probably happens most frequently by Gobert or Favors as they prevent rotations out to open corner 3-point shooters.
“In these cases, you have to read your man, and the man that’s potentially switching on to you, and you have to read the help that’s potentially coming over to switch again,” Snyder said. “It puts an emphasis on reading situations.”
But there are ways to do it in the flow of an offense, or on out-of-bounds plays as well. This was one of my favorites from last season from the Miami Heat, where Tyler Johnson screens his own man into Nikola Jokic, essentially knocking out two defenders in one move for the easy ferocious dunk.
We’ll see if the Jazz install more wrinkles like this in the offense in 2018-19.
6. Slip the screen
Switching on defense relies on communication. If one defender thinks that the defense has switched, and the other doesn’t, all of a sudden one offensive player is double teamed while the other stays wide open.
So especially against switching teams, the Jazz will “slip” the pick. In other words, they’ll pretend to go up and set a screen, but won’t set one at all. That results in confusion for the defense — did the screen happen, or not? Should we switch, or not? — and hopefully an open player.
They can do this with big men setting screens or small-small screens. Here, vs. Perth, Gobert fakes setting the screen, but slips out and beats his man to the basket for an easy alley-oop.
But small-small screens can be just as effective. This was one of the most iconic plays of the Jazz’s playoff run last year, but the play that led up to it was the result of switch-or-not-to-switch confusion. Ingles runs up to Rubio, but doesn’t stop to set a screen, just runs through to the 3-point line. Ingles does make contact with Ray Felton, but not much, and the OKC defense doesn’t decide if they’re going to switch or not. Eventually, both OKC defenders chase Rubio, leaving Ingles with a wide-open three.
Yeah, Ingles missed a rare wide-open look, but Rubio ended up with the ball, and you might know what comes next.
The Jazz will probably have to use all of these wrinkles, and maybe a few more, to be able to effectively score against Houston and Golden State in the playoffs. But there’s a real difference in how the Jazz are approaching those matchups: instead of seeing them as nearly-certain defeats, they’re scheming up ways to move on.