The Triple Team: Jazz are the league’s most efficient 2-point team. How did we get here?

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) dunks over Washington Wizards center Daniel Gafford (21) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 123-98 over the Washington Wizards from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. How are the Jazz scoring in the paint this much?

Do you know who the most efficient team in the NBA is inside the arc? The Utah Jazz.

I think that might surprise some people. The Jazz are known for their three-point shooting, and that makes sense: they’re No. 1 in threes attempted and in threes made this season. Half of their shots are from deep.

But when they do shoot inside the arc, the Jazz make more shots than anyone, shooting 58.3% from the field coming into the game. Tonight was even better: the Jazz shot 65% from 2-point range, and 24-27 directly at the rim area.

What are the factors going into that success? Here’s the 2-point % by area of the court:

In other words, the Jazz are more effective closer to the basket than last year. Let’s go player-by-player to learn more:

Some notes:

• Rudy Gobert led the league in field-goal percentage last year — and just got 5% better this year, sure, no problem. That’s so bonkers.

• One reason Quin Snyder has incentivized Donovan Mitchell to take all of those pull-up threes is that those 3-point pull-ups are more efficient than his 2-point looks. 47.6% inside the arc last season isn’t amazing. But getting nearly 7% better this year is a big deal. I think he’s doing a great job at holding on to the gather for just one second extra, or getting one extra dribble, which gives him one more step to be able to finish at the rim, rather than far away from it. A move like this is a good example:

• Joe Ingles is getting to the rim way less than last season, but when he is, it’s been easier for him.

• Royce O’Neale is going there at the same rates, but just making way more of them. He has looked more comfortable around the rim this season.

• Mike Conley’s never shot above 50% from 2-point range in a season before. Somehow, he’s doing it this year.

• Hassan Whiteside is getting 1 more shot per game compared to Derrick Favors; that’s a big deal.

• Rudy Gay, as expected, has been better in the paint than Georges Niang was.

• Jordan Clarkson is the least efficient 2-point shooter this year, and there has been a dropoff this season.

Here’s a hypothesis: maybe because the Jazz were so good from three last year, teams are selling out to stop the Jazz’s threes this year?

Except that, well, isn’t working either. Regardless, what an offensive stretch from the Jazz — they’re literally playing offense like no team has ever before.

2. Defensive communication

So many times when the Jazz — or any basketball team — lose, the first go-to buzzword used is communication. If they made foreign language books for coaches, “We have to communicate better on defense,” might be above “Where is the restroom?” on the list of must-learn phrases.

In the second half tonight, the Jazz’s defensive communication was excellent: they’re so much better at nailing transition defense, sorting out switches, and identifying threats than they were earlier in the season.

If you’re in a place where you can, turn your sound on for this clip. At the very beginning, you can actually hear someone yelling. I think it’s: “FIGHT THROUGH — BLACK, BLACK.” Black is Jazz parlance for “switch.”

I think that’s O’Neale yelling, but it might be Whiteside. Regardless, you can see why it’s happening: the Wizards are running what might their most dangerous combination, a two-man game with Bradley Beal and Montrezl Harrell. And at first, it looks like O’Neale might be able to contain the play, but pretty quickly, it’s clear that it’s going to be necessary for Whiteside to guard Beal, or else it’s going to be an open shot. Hence the “black” call.

So now Harrell gets the ball down low, and O’Neale stands tall against him, forcing the adjustment. This also gives Whiteside the chance to get back in the play, and even make the block at the end. It’s really good stuff from both players, and means the Jazz get a defensive stop in a tough situation.

It’s especially impressive because it was Whiteside, who isn’t known as a savvy defender. But I think he does mostly everything right here, and he was fantastic in the second half today in forcing these Wizards misses. Wizards had just an 87 offensive rating when Whiteside was in the game in the second half; that’ll certainly do.

3. Dropoffs for star guards

Maybe the single biggest difference between this season and last season in the NBA has been the scoring output of star guards. Check it out, some of these drop-offs are hugely significant:

Okay, I probably didn’t need to include Kyrie.

Still, I write about it now because of Bradley Beal, who played just an extraordinarily milquetoast game against the Jazz tonight. And as you can see above he’s had the biggest drop off, with only Trae Young scoring more than last year.

Why is this happening? The perimeter defense rules are the obvious explanation. Those stars are less able to get to the free-throw line than before and defenses can guard them tighter, knowing that they’re unlikely to get caught with a cheap foul. I also wonder if the new ball has also made guards less comfortable shooting from the perimeter than before.

Who does this NBA trend probably favor? Probably the Utah Jazz! So long as Donovan Mitchell keeps playing as well as he has, the NBA being less able to take advantage of the Jazz’s poor perimeter defense is only a good thing.