Asked after last Friday’s blowout victory over the Charlotte Hornets how the Jazz’s surging defense could yet improve, reserve forward Georges Niang had a confident if flippant response.
“I have to really think on this one — we’re really good,” he said to laughter, before conceding he was only kidding.
The thing is, during much of this stretch of nine straight wins and 14 victories in 15 games, the Jazz’s defense has, in fact, been really good.
Which is to say, they’re not nearly as good as they believe they can be.
Recent seasons have seen Utah consistently finish among the leagues top-three-rated defenses. Of course, after this summer’s roster overhaul to bolster the team’s scoring options, many expected a defensive regression to be inevitable, and that has indeed been the case.
Still, after a relatively pedestrian start, the Jazz have been picking up steam defensively and rising up the rankings, owing to their growing familiarity with one another and with coach Quin Snyder’s schemes. After Sunday’s win in Washington, the Jazz had moved up to eighth in the NBA in defensive rating, allowing 106.1 points per 100 possessions.
Naturally, this being the Jazz, they see plenty of places where improvement is possible. And considering the team allowed 66 first-half points to the Wizards on Sunday, it’s not as though they’re humble-bragging.
“I think we were a little slow, especially defensively,” noted two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. "Especially myself, being indecisive, and we gave up a lot of back cuts, a lot of layups, and I think they got confident.”
Snyder, of course, had a multi-step plan at the ready when asked where specifically the Jazz can do better on that side of the ball:
1. While Gobert is second in the NBA in rebounds per game (14.4) and the Jazz rank fifth in defensive rebounding percentage, the team’s perimeter players could stand to “really crack down on the defensive glass,” thereby “giving Rudy confidence to get off his man’s body and go contest a shot.” (Gobert is currently second in the league in shots contested per game, at 15.6, but the Jazz, as a team, are only 24th.)
2. The Jazz presently rank 13th in opponents’ fast-break points, yielding 12.5 per game: “Transition defense is always something that is important. Sometimes it comes and goes even within the course of a game; and when someone goes in and misses a layup, it’s hard to play five against four. There are certain things that you can do in those situations to mitigate that.”
3. A more general area of concern is the frequency with which perimeter defenders get hung up on screens and thus wind up yielding easy shots: “Just our ability to get into ball-handlers, in pick-and-roll situations in particular,” Snyder said. “We’re working really hard not to get screened and to recover and get back in front.”
4. And finally, Utah ranks 13th in the league in committing 20.5 personal fouls per game. Snyder wants to see that number drop, though he acknowledges it’s not as easy as telling guys to be less aggressive: “I would like to see us foul a little less. It’s been something we have been talking about a lot, particularly jump shooters. But it’s a balance between I’m saying ‘Get up and guard somebody and pressure them and be physical,’ and then all of a sudden someone shoots a jumper and you run into them. Some of that stuff is just case-by-case.”
The message has been sinking in.
Niang, after that audacious aggrandizement, would actually go on to mention a couple of the exact factors his coach had singled out beforehand.
“Just continue to get into guys and always contesting shots. Shot percentages go down drastically when you add a contest,” he said. “So I just think we can continue to improve on that, and close possessions with defensive rebounds.”
The message on that night was getting through. But then, after that lackluster first half against the Wizards, some of those components warranted repeating.
Gobert, in particular, took it personally. While he certainly was not helped by teammates getting constantly beat off the dribble, he also admitted that he too frequently got caught in no-man’s land — neither shutting down his man rolling to the rim, nor really stepping up to cut off guardline penetration.
That all changed in the third quarter, when he began deploying higher in halfcourt situations, thus disrupting Washington’s pick-and-roll opportunities. His game-wrecking ferocity was reelected in the simple statistics: In the first half, the Wizards scored 66 points on 61.7% shooting; after the break, they totaled 50 points on 39.1%.
“They were hitting a lot of comfortable mid-range shots, so we just went back to our principles and made Rudy a presence, and that changed a lot,” noted Emmanuel Mudiay.
After seeing his team decimated by Gobert’s impact last week, Hornets coach James Borrego gave an amusing-if-stark response when asked what could be done to battle a locked-in Gobert.
“Drink your milk and just try to grow and get bigger and stronger. I mean, that’s about it,” Borrego said. “Look, they’re fantastic. They’re a great team, they’re playing really well, and Gobert is a big part of it on both ends of the floor. He’s fantastic. … Even when he’s not guarding the ball, everybody’s aware of him on the defensive end. He’s a special player.”
Now, if the Jazz can begin to address the deficiencies Snyder mentioned, their defense as a whole can perhaps once again go from “really good” to “special” as well.
JAZZ AT NETS
At Barclays Center, Brooklyn
Tipoff • Tuesday, 5:30 p.m. MST
TV • AT&T SportsNet
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 27-12; Nets 18-20
Last meeting • Jazz, 119-114 (Nov. 12)
About the Jazz • In the teams’ previous matchup, Utah trailed by 15 at halftime before roaring back with a 13-0 run to start the third quarter and a 19-6 stretch to open the fourth. … The Jazz have an NBA-best nine-game winning streak, and have won 14 of their past 15 games. … Utah has risen all the way to 11th in the NBA in offensive rating, scoring 110.1 points per 100 possessions.
About the Nets • After missing 26 games with a shoulder injury, guard Kyrie Irving returned Sunday vs. Atlanta and scored 21 points on 10-of-11 shooting in just 20 minutes. … Brooklyn ranks second in the NBA in rebounds per game, at 48.9. … Center Jarrett Allen is fourth in the league in FG%, at 65.5.