While much of the credit for the Utah Jazz’s eight-game winning streak has deservedly gone to their historically-great 3-point shooting, what’s gone almost unnoticed in the interim is the team’s rise up through the defensive rating rankings.
After years of being a top-three defense, the Jazz last season fell out of the top 10. But now, heading into Monday’s slate of games, Utah ranked fourth in the league.
With an eight-game winning streak in hand heading into Tuesday night’s game against the Knicks at Vivint Arena, Rudy Gobert credits the Jazz’s most recent defeat — coincidentally, against the Knicks, at Madison Square Garden back on Jan. 6 — with getting the team on the right track.
“That the loss against the Knicks, I see it as a win, because that’s when we really understood what we needed to do as a team to be great. Before that, we were really up and down — we played well one game and then sucked the next game,” Gobert said. “We were really depending on if we’re going to make 3s or not. And now, we’ve really understood that when we defend and we try to be the best defensive team in the league every single night, for some reason the shots fall easier and way more.”
JAZZ VS. KNICKS
At Vivint Smart Home Arena
When • Tuesday, 7 p.m.
TV • ATTSN
Point guard Mike Conley serves as a nice microcosm of the strides the Jazz have made on that end of the court.
While the lion’s share of the focus on his struggles to acclimate with the Jazz were centered around his offensive struggles, he revealed this past February just how much he was plagued by mistakes on the other end of the court.
“I’m so used to not letting anybody in the paint. If they drive, I help with it at the ‘nail’ — at the free-throw line — and I get back out to my man,” Conley explained then. “Here, we have Rudy. We’re taught to drift away and let Rudy handle all that. I get caught diving in to help when I shouldn’t, so I mess up the next guy because they’re having to help on my guy.”
It took awhile to break the muscle memory of those old habits and to instill the new ones given to him by the Jazz (“As much as anything, it was him having more of a presence on the ball,” Quin Snyder noted), even into the early games of this season, but Conley said after Monday’s practice that he finally feels like he’s in the right places at the right times.
And that everyone on the team has mostly been doing the right things during this winning streak.
“I think a lot of us have been guilty of over-helping in situations, and those are things that I was guilty of all last year and even early this season, just over-helping, because I’m still so used to having to be the guy to help and not realizing you still have that 7-footer back there who we’re trying to funnel everything towards. That’s been the biggest thing,” Conley said. “Right now, we’ve been really doing a good job of communicating, being connected — the guy on the ball and the guy guarding the screener on pick-and-rolls have really been connected; guys are flying all over the place, we’re creating turnovers and opportunities for us offensively. So we just continue to keep that mindset.”
It really does come down to focusing on little details and building habits out of them.
“A lot of times, those ratings, they tell a general story, but to me it’s important to get more granular on it,” Snyder said.
For instance, it’s all fine and well to note that part of the Jazz’s success is that they’re allowing the third-fewest 3-pointers made and sixth-lowest percentage beyond the arc to opponents, but it’s important to realize it stems in part from Conley staying attached to shooters and letting Gobert handle the paint.
The Jazz holding opponents to the third-lowest field-goal percentage overall? “For us to use Rudy effectively, we want him to impact shots,” Snyder said. The coach pointed out how much success teams had in the midrange against the Jazz last season, and while he attributed some of that to “a little bit of an aberration,” and “a regression to the mean,” he also recognized “they were too open.”
This season, Gobert ranks second in the league in defended field goals attempted, at 18.9 per game. Opponents shoot 48.4% against him when he’s not able to challenge a shot, but only 41.3% when he is. That’s a product of Gobert and the team’s perimeter defenders working tirelessly at how they handle switching on pick-and-rolls — when to make the hand-off, how far Gobert must come out, et cetera.
“First of all, it’s on my teammates to to make sure that they pressure the ball and that they don’t get beat too easily or they don’t get beat at all. It makes it much easier on me,” Gobert explained. “… I need to make sure that I don’t overhelp, but I’m there to make sure that no one scores in the paint easily. It’s really on me to to time it, and also it’s on my teammates to have my back — when I go and try to block a shot, make sure they are able to hit my man and help me on the rebounds.”
Speaking of which, the Jazz rank first this season in total rebounding percentage and ninth in defensive rebounding percentage.
Gobert said that while the Jazz have been emphasizing defense more since their loss to the Knicks and that everyone is “on the same page,” he also believes they’re not yet at their best and can get much better defensively.
Snyder wants to see players continue to work on keeping opponents in front of them, to find the right balance between disruption and containment, to improve upon how they defend in transition, though he acknowledges that’s hard to simulate in a practice. He also said the defense can improve simply by virtue of the offense taking better care of the ball: “If we turn the ball over, it’s tough to play any defense.”
That’s all yet to come, though. In the meantime, there’s been plenty of tangible progress made.
And, counterintuitively, they have that loss to the Knicks to thank for it.
“All those things that we took away from that game directly have impacted us going forward,” Conley said. “We’ve kind of changed our mentality and changed the way we approach the game, changed the way we go through different points in games — where teams do make a run against us, we’re able to bounce back really quickly and not dwell on mistakes or turnovers or different situations. That game really kind of gave us an outlook on who we wanted to be, and I think we’ve done a good job of trying to approach that the right way.”