Utah Jazz’s skid-busting win summed up: ‘Focus and pride on the defensive end’

In addition to putting together a great defensive fourth quarter against the Nuggets, Utah’s players appear much-improved with their communication — in-game and otherwise.

Denver Nuggets forward Will Barton, front, looks to pass the ball as Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson defends in the second half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

It’s been a weird couple of days for the Utah Jazz.

On Friday, center Rudy Gobert — who’d sat out the team’s previous five games due to COVID-19 — seemed to take some oblique shots at the defense being played by the Jazz’s perimeter defenders. On Saturday, Donovan Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson issued some terse comments in response when asked about the situation.

On Sunday, though … well, on Sunday, “communication” was the buzzword du jour following an impressive 125-102 victory at Ball Arena in Denver over the Nuggets. Whether Nikola Jokic’s crew was tired after playing its third game in four nights was irrelevant to the Jazz, who came in on a four-game losing streak.

They were more focused on getting themselves right again — both on the court and in the locker room. And communication played a big role, primarily defensively, but also, apparently, in clearing the air of any lingering tensions.

Coach Quin Snyder said that what drove Utah’s victory — particularly in a crucial 15-0 run late, and in a fourth-quarter that saw them clamp down on Denver for good — was pretty simple.

“There was a level of focus and pride on the defensive end that I hope our guys feel good about,” Snyder said. “I think they do, and they should.”

Gobert, for one, felt good about it.

“The communication was great,” he said after racking up 18 points, 19 rebounds, and two blocks. “That’s the team that we can be. And that’s the mindset that we need to have every single night. And it’s exciting to see that we still have another gear that we can tap into.”

During the fourth quarter, which the Jazz won by a 34-14 margin, the Nuggets wound up shooting just 6 for 23 (26.1%).

That was quite the turnaround from the preceding five-game stretch where Utah slogged through some of the worst defense played by any team this season.

Both Mitchell (who totaled 31 points, five boards, and four assists) and Bojan Bogdanovic (21 points, five dimes, four rebounds) would agree afterward that the communication among the five players out on the court precipitated the defensive improvement.

The latter pointed out that the team had made it a point to step up its aggressiveness, particularly at the point of attack, because, “When we are passive defensively, we don’t talk much.” The former noted how, with three days off between games, they got a chance to go through some practice and film sessions, which helped them “know what to say to each other.”

Mitchell also made it a point to say several times how players “had each other’s backs.”

You saw that play out not only in game action, but also when the clock wasn’t running, even when the game was over. After a highlight-reel play by Gobert, Mitchell raced over and delivered a celebratory two-handed shove to the big man. And as the center was doing a postgame interview on the court with the TV broadcast crew, Mitchell made it a point to stop by and give him a playful smack on the chest, an acknowledgement of the excellent performance he’d just had.

Gobert, for his part, seemed to extend a very deliberate olive branch after that ruffling of feathers, making it a point to praise the two players who’d taken issue with his comments.

“Every single guy on the court was locked in defensively. There were a few plays when Donovan twice got driven on [with] the dribble, went up with verticality, made an amazing play on the ball,” Gobert said. “Donovan and Jordan got a few big rebounds. And then we were able to run and score in transition.”

It was one big kumbaya session.

Of course, with the Jazz visiting the Lakers on Monday, now they have to do it all over again. Well, the communication and defense parts, anyway.

“Tonight was good. It was a good step forward,” Mitchell said. “We’ve got to keep doing it. We can’t just say, ‘Alright, we did it tonight, we’re back,’ you know? We’ve got to continue to do it night after night.”