For the first time in the Will Hardy era, the Utah Jazz keep an opponent under 100 points

An injury to center Walker Kessler has forced some defensive changes.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) fouls Portland Trail Blazers center Duop Reath (26) as Utah Jazz forward Simone Fontecchio (16) defends in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023.

For the first time in the Will Hardy era, the Jazz allowed an opponent to score fewer than 100 points.

For the first time in the Will Hardy era, he says he’ll be sleeping the night after a game.

“Sheer joy,” Hardy said, when he was asked his reaction to the accomplishment, after the Jazz beat the Portland Trail Blazers Tuesday by a final score of 115-99. “It was actually the first thing I said when I went back to the coaches, I looked at the box score and I was like ‘Can we really hold somebody under 100?’ It feels good.”

Look, it’s a stat that is more damning than it is positive. Yes, scoring is up in the NBA overall, making scores over 100 more common. Last season, 81% of games ended in scores where both teams had over 100 points. The average team scored 114.7 points per game last year, this year, that number is slightly down to 113.5 points per game in early-season play.

But that it took the Jazz 93 regular season games to allow fewer than 100 points is a reflection that their defense has been consistently poor since the Rudy Gobert trade, and is an indication that something needs to be fixed. Furthermore, Tuesday’s result was about as friendly as could be from a defensive point of view: Portland was missing all of its lead ballhandlers. Malcolm Brogdon, Scoot Henderson, and Anfernee Simons are all out due to injury. Starting point guard Skylar Mays was a two-way contract player until Sunday. Even with all that, the Jazz only escaped triple digits by one point.

Breaking down the defensive changes

So what needs to be fixed? This season, it’s the half-court defense. The Jazz rank last in the league in half-court defense — they actually have the eighth-best transition defense in the league at the moment. That the Jazz are struggling even when back and set is troubling.

That alone might have forced a change to Hardy’s defensive scheme. But last week, starting center (and theoretical best defensive player) Walker Kessler began an injury absence due to an elbow sprain that will cost him at least two weeks. The Jazz had problems with and without him on the floor, but having Kessler absent really turned the screws of change. Last week, the Jazz made a significant adjustment to their base defensive scheme.

“I think (change) was necessary, whether Walker was in or out,” Hardy said. “But I do think that Walker in some ways has been a crutch or a safety blanket for us defensively, whether that’s consciously or subconsciously.”

Hardy’s defensive philosophy means focusing on protecting the rim first, then corner threes second, then above-the-break threes third.

The change seems to be this: to help a lot. Without Kessler, the Jazz have to protect the rim as a five-man unit — and because of those shot selection preferences, that help has to come from the players who are typically defending the upper edges of the arc. But failing that, help should come from the corners, and then players guarding wings should prevent corner passes.

Let me show you what that means in practice. The simplest version comes on high pick and roll, where wings help all the way off of their men on the edges in order to stop dribble penetration. This three by Toumani Camara is the result when Ochai Agbaji helps to the center of the free-throw line, giving him a good 15 feet to recover to his man. Still, the Jazz prefer this shot to dribble penetration — because Camara, coming into the game, was a 26% 3-point shooter.

On more complicated plays, the Jazz are going to give up the open look to players at the top of the key over allowing drives and rolls. Again, Agbaji sinks way into the paint here to prevent any pass to DeAndre Ayton, then recovers out to the top after the pass.

Lauri Markkanen is really key to this: he’s a 7-footer who the Jazz believe in as both a roving help forward and even a drop-big center. This is an interesting play: John Collins seals Ayton up high, but look how ready Markkanen is to help down low. When Markkanen helps, Keyonte George sinks to the baseline. (Even though he gets backdoored here, it seems like the main goal is to prevent the pass to the corner.)

On pick and pops, the Jazz are mostly doubling the ballhandler, leaving the pop-out three relatively open. Again — it’s an above-the-break three that the Jazz will basically live with.

Thinking about matchups

This defense is going to work well against poor shooting teams like Memphis and Portland. I also think it’s going to work well against the L.A. Lakers, who rank 30th in the league in 3-point shots taken per game right now. That’s three of their four In-Season Tournament group opponents.

What’s to be determined is whether it will work well against teams that can actually shoot — like the Phoenix Suns. The Jazz play the Suns twice in a row coming up, on Friday and Sunday, with both games at the Delta Center. The Suns don’t take an exceptional number of above-the-break threes (they rank 15th in the league there), but do make them at a good clip: 35.7% last year, 36% this year.

And yet: even if the Jazz allowed an above-the-break three to the Suns every possession, that’d average 1.08 points per possession. In their last matchup, the Jazz allowed the Suns to score 1.20 points per possession in the half court. Even those open deep looks over and over again would likely be an improvement.

The Jazz’s first matchup against the Suns is most important — that’s the one that counts for the In-Season Tournament. Right now, the Jazz stand second in their group in tournament play. They’re 2-0, but so are the Lakers; the Lakers’ point-differential is +30, while the Jazz’s is +22.

Regardless of how they do it: the Jazz need more nights like Tuesday. They can’t go another 93 games before limiting their opponents to double digits again.

“There’s going to be nights where guys make a lot of shots even when you’re playing good defense,” Markkanen said. “But that’s something that, we can really work on to get better at and pride ourselves on that.”

And maybe, just maybe, let their coach get some sleep.