Gordon Monson: The Utah Jazz must win together on defense, or they’ll lose separately

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, left, hits a shot over Utah Jazz guard Joe Ingles, right, during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020. The Blazers won 124-107. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)

Donovan Mitchell sounded frustrated the other night, after the Jazz lost their fourth straight game, via the same painful methodology — destruction by perimeter attack. The other guys’ perimeter attack. That time, Damian Lillard did the damage, a player as hot as any star can be. His recent streak of devastating shooting accuracy has been harmful to more than just the Jazz.

But the Jazz are particularly vulnerable, not just from the elite likes of Lillard. Eric Gordon dropped what was for him a season-high 50 on them. DeMar DeRozan scored a season-high 38. Nikola Jokic got 28 points, many of them coming from … well, you know where.


Including the free-throw line.

The Jazz have a problem that looks to be more than just a temporary lull. Teams during an 82-game regular season, even good ones, weather those kinds of difficulties over stretches. But you have to wonder if what the Jazz are giving up now is more than a blip, rather more a trend caused by a recognized deficiency, either mental or physical, or maybe parts of both.

They are not able to stay in front of gifted scorers. Not able to bring timely help. Not able to help the helper. And Rudy Gobert is not able, great as he is, to cover everyone. He cannot be at once at every favored spot on the floor. He cannot make up for the loose defense conjured by teammates.

And thanks to scouts who preview every next opponent, sitting in plain sight at every arena, not just watching from afar, the word is out.

Every NBA team knows this weakness now. Maybe every opponent doesn’t have the personnel to effectively draw Gobert away from the basket and punish the rest of the Jazz in so doing. But those who do, which is a decent collection of the better teams in the West, will employ this strategy.

The question is: Can the Jazz overcome that tactic?

And another one: Do they lack the athleticism to overcome that tactic?

Or is it simply a lack of recognition?

Are the Jazz’s struggles born out of lack of physical ability to move into proper position or are they the result of, as Mitchell has indicated, substandard communication?

It’s probably a combo-pack of both, along with other complications.

Which in some cases is confusing. Take Mitchell, for instance, who has been beaten at the defensive end a fair amount of late. You think he’s not athletic? He is. If he’s athletic enough to do what he does on the reg at the offensive end, why wouldn’t he be able to stay with whoever he’s guarding, at least enough to cause him some major troubles?

Is the scoring burden on him so great that he can’t be distracted by D’ing up, too?

Many of the other Jazz defenders are not exceptionally big or quick, which puts them at a disadvantage, even without the screens that bedevil them.

In reviewing the losses, a span during which Quin Snyder has said his attack has been proficient enough to win games while his defenders on opposing guards and wings, as noted, have been beat right from jump, even before masses of humanity provide more obstacles. Once that traffic is in place, forget about it. The Jazz resistance has stumbled and crumbled.

Making matters worse, they’ve resorted, at times, to fouling, a primary no-no in the coach’s defensive philosophy.

Over those past four games, opponents’ shooting percentages have soared like a rocket. In scoring its 126 points, Houston made 47 percent of its shots, 38 percent from deep. San Antonio got 127 points, shooting better than 56 percent. Denver went for 106 points, hitting 47 percent. Portland totaled 124 points, with a percentage of 51 percent overall and 51 percent from beyond the arc.

The Jazz haven’t been able to keep up.

The excuse that the opponents they have faced of late are stellar is only partially true. The Blazers and the Spurs are sub-.500, Houston and Denver are the kinds of teams the Jazz will measure themselves against come the postseason. The games were played on the road, but a majority of these opponents were missing some of their best players. The Rockets without Harden, Westbrook and Capela. The Spurs without LaMarcus Aldridge. The Nuggets without three key contributors.

What happens when they face the Lakers or the Clippers in a best-of-seven series? Especially if those teams are at full strength?

They will have to fix their problems — either through increased focus, connectivity and strategy or via a trade.

Nobody should panic. But with the trade deadline approaching, if that is the best solution, time is running short. And as the Jazz continue adjusting to a more significant role for Mike Conley, a gifted player who has yet to find himself in Utah, chances are decent his incorporation will not help the defense on the perimeter, not unless he sprouts a half-a-foot in height or turns back the clock a decade for more lateral quickness.

The conclusion is less than conclusive. But a glance around the room indicates that there are few individual defensive stoppers on the Jazz, outside of the big fella sitting in front of the locker over on the left. Where are the others? Royce O’Neale? Maybe, on a good night. Anybody else?

Even if any kind of reinforcement is gained, Patrick Beverly isn’t coming through that door. Neither is Paul George or Eric Bledsoe or Giannis Antetokounmpo.

That means, in simplified terms, the Jazz will have to do it together. Shuck their casualness, bear down and gut it up as a group united in cause. Weakly funneling everything to Gobert like matadors ole’ing bulls his way may work in some circumstances, but it won’t always work. Particularly if Gobert is drawn and preoccupied across the court.

To use the words of legendary defensive hoops specialist Ben Franklin, the Jazz must all hang together, or, most assuredly, they shall all hang — lose — separately.

Hanging — winning — together is better.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.