Tonight in Indianapolis, the Jazz are taking on a Pacers team that has been the third-best defense in the NBA since the All-Star break.
Who has been the best? Funny you should ask.
That has been the Jazz, who claimed at the beginning of the season that they would have the best defense in the NBA (or at least Rudy Gobert did), and now they’re looking like it. Since getting out of the All-Star break, the Jazz are 4-2 and leading the league in defensive efficiency (95.2). They’ve allowed fewer points per game than any team in that stretch — and over the course of the entire season, the Jazz are still fourth in defensive rating behind the Celtics, Spurs and Raptors.
You might be thinking that’s tied to Gobert ... and of course it is. The French centerpiece has averaged 2.4 blocks since coming back 20 games ago, and drivers to the rim fear going up against him in the lane — except for Bogdan Bogdanovic, who might know better.
But also, the rebounding of Gobert (11.7 rpg in the last six games) and Derrick Favors (7.4 rpg) has played a huge role: The Jazz have limited opponents on the offensive glass more than any other team, and are allowing just 8.2 second-chance points per game (the Sixers are next at 9.8 ppg).
To sum up a bunch of numbers — the Jazz have been absolutely stifling. And if they can keep that up on the upcoming three-game road trip, that should bode well for their (slightly improving) playoff chances. But more on that in a minute:
1. It’s amazing what a little breeze of optimism will do for business: The Jazz keep selling out games, and jerseys (especially Donovan Mitchell jerseys) are going as fast as any player in the last several seasons. I took a look behind the factors that have led to fans buying into the Jazz and what that’s meant for the team’s bottom line. [Trib]
2. Tony noticed a trend in the Jazz’s back-to-back wins over the weekend: Ricky Rubio had a strong hand in both games. He looked at how the veteran point guard has actually been the player who might be most connected to whether the Jazz are winning or losing. [Trib]
3. Let’s hedge a bit here: I probed Donovan Mitchell’s relationship with custom sneaker artist Kickstradomis, including a sneak peek of what other players on the Jazz might soon be wearing. [Trib] But also — Eric Woodyard at the Deseret News interviewed Kickstradomis and put his own spin on it. [DNews]
4. What was it like on the tarmac when the top Jazz officials learned that they had lost out on Gordon Hayward? Sam Amick of USA Today talked to Dennis Lindsey about how Utah got really bad news on an airport tarmac … but then made a decision to change course. [USA Today]
5. A change of pace for our final slot: Comics! Marc Spears caught up with Derrick Favors (lot of that going around) about his love of comic books and how watching the movie Black Panther has shifted his landscape a bit. [The Undefeated]
Oh yes, we did. We brought Derrick Favors on the podcast — or more accurately brought the podcast to him. We had long discussions about his career with the Jazz, playing through injuries and trade rumors, why dunking standards are so high for big men and more. It includes a long stretch of Derrick and Tony discussing their favorite rappers and hip-hop artists that have been influential to them.
IN THE ROTATION
• It’s hard to ignore how much of a problem Utah’s bench has become. Tony wrote about how injuries and moves have forced the Jazz to retool their second unit on the fly. [Trib]
• Quin Snyder’s ejection in the last game was good TV, but to his players, it was a sign: Their coach has their backs, and occasionally will lose his temper to express what they can’t say. [Trib]
• Tony’s NBA column this week tackled one-and-dones and the NCAA. [Trib]
• Eric Woodyard took a fresh look at Matt Harpring, who has smoothly transitioned from player to analyst with the Jazz. [DNews]
• ESPN 700 radio host and KSL contributor Ben Anderson weighed the value of a lottery pick versus the value of learning how to win for the Jazz. [KSL.com]
• The math teacher jokes about Joe Ingles will never die — but meanwhile, his game has improved. ESPN’s Tim McMahon tackled the Australian’s stereotypes by looking at some stats. [ESPN]
• The most compelling story in the NBA this week might have been written by a player. Kevin Love opened up on a panic attack he had back in November that shook his entire view on mental health and being a man. [The Player’s Tribune]
EYE ON SOCIAL
There was an Instagram war on Sunday, and Rubio, Ingles, Mitchell and Royce O’Neale all took shots at one another with throwback photos that were … not flattering.
You should check out the whole thread if you have time.
The rampage ended after Mitchell roped Rudy Gobert into the chaos. After a cryptic Instagram story, Gobert said at the next practice that the rookies are getting too comfortable: “We’ve been very nice with them this year. Someone has to fix that.”
Here’s guessing that the retaliation won’t be on Instagram — more likely in real life.
Speaking of the Gobert-Mitchell relationship, Donovan talked about how discussing attacking the rim with Gobert has made him a better finisher. After all: Who better to tell him how to avoid shot-blockers?
“Listening to [Gobert] actually. Attacking the basket. A lot of times at the beginning of the year, and even a few weeks ago, I would just settle and knock the three down. Just getting to the basket, understanding they don’t have a shot-blocker out there, so trying to get to the rim and make the refs make the call. …
“[Gobert] tells me what’s going on in his head when guys are driving on him. So if I listen to him, and he’s one of the best shot-blockers in the league — he probably is the best shot-blocker in the league — if I have him telling me, ‘This is what I’m thinking.’ So I know someone who is shorter [than Gobert], doesn’t have the same arm reach or whatever, it helps me visualize how to get to the basket.”
ODDS TO MAKE THE PLAYOFFS?
Stat site FiveThirtyEight has a slight improvement for the Jazz this week (especially after Tuesday’s Clipper loss) giving them a 66 percent chance of making it. The Jazz (34-30) are just one game behind eight-seed Denver (35-29), with a chance to pull even with the Nuggets on Wednesday night.
It’s a three-game road trip: The Jazz have won a surprising eight straight in a row on the road. After a tough start in Indianapolis Pacers, the Jazz will get the struggling Memphis Grizzlies. The road trip finale Sunday is against the New Orleans Pelicans, with whom the Jazz are battling for a playoff spot, before returning home to take on the Pistons.