The Utah Jazz are running some wacky defenses — and they’ve been working. This is why.

Will Hardy is mixing things up on the defensive end, and it’s helped his team beat the Knicks and Blazers in back-to-back games.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Collin Sexton (2) celebrates a stop as the Utah Jazz host the New York Knicks, NBA basketball on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023.

One thing I’ve loved in the Utah Jazz’s two wins this week: their defenses.

Not singular, plural.

The Jazz are switching between three defensive schemes right now: their base man defense, their main zone that ends up being sort of a 1-1-2-1 look, and a box-and-one where either Collin Sexton or Kris Dunn is deployed on the opposing team’s best player while the rest of the team guards an area of the court. Watching Jazz games in person this week has been a spectacle, as Jazz coach Will Hardy jumps up and down to signal a new defensive look every time down the floor.

Holding up a fist? That’s the box-and-one.

Holding three fingers up? That’s the zone.

The novel defenses have worked. The Jazz’s non-man defenses allowed 0.825 points against the Knicks and 0.847 points per possession against the Blazers, well below their usual averages. (Their man defenses allowed more than a point per possession in both contests.) A team that was the worst half-court defense in the league suddenly looks respectable.

While it’s a small sample size, it’s worth looking at what the Jazz are doing to try to understand it.

The box and one

This is where the Jazz can unleash Sexton and Dunn — two ultra-competitive guards who aren’t super impactful in team-oriented defensive schemes due to lack of size.

“I think Collin and Kris, those guys are very good when they’re on assignment — like this is my responsibility and everybody else sort of helps behind them,” Hardy said.

I’ll go further: What both players can absolutely do is shadow one guy until they’re pulled off the court in a fit of dehydration. This is how wild it is: Against the Knicks, Sexton shadowed Jalen Brunson to such a ridiculous extent that Brunson walked off the court during play into the Jazz’s tunnel in order to shake him. Sexton still followed him.

“Collin took his job very literally. That was Collin going above and beyond his work responsibilities,” Hardy laughed. “I guess it’s one way to deny the guy the ball — let’s take him back in the back.”

That’s an extreme example, but it has been effective. With Brunson out of the picture, the Jazz could play 4-on-4 elsewhere on the court, and they felt fine with forcing the likes of R.J. Barrett (who shot 3-16) to make plays.

Sexton did the same thing in the Portland game, this time bodying up Anfernee Simons. Behind them, the other four Jazz players were in a zone, with Simone Fontecchio picking up ball handler Shaedon Sharpe at the top of the diamond. When Sharpe drives, everyone collapses onto the ball, forcing the miss.

Back in the Knicks game, Brunson got tired of not having the ball after being ball-denied for so long. So when he did get it, he tried to score at all costs ... including taking a step back 22-footer with 14 seconds on the shot clock late in the third. Again, the Jazz are thrilled about this.

To be sure, playing this scheme requires that the other team have players you’re comfortable with attacking you in the extra space that a 4-on-4 provides. In the regular season, there definitely are those guys. In the Knicks game, it was Barrett, Josh Hart, Donte DiVincenzo, and Quentin Grimes. In the Blazers game, the Jazz were fine with forcing Sharpe, Matisse Thybulle, Toumani Camara, Jabari Walker, and Duop Reath to try to make something happen.

The wacky zone

This isn’t your grandfather’s 2-3 zone.

The Jazz’s zone is kind of a modified 2-3 in which one player guards up top, one helps on drives near the free throw line, two players guard the entire wings of the court, and Walker Kessler is in the center. So like this:

The Jazz's base formation in a zone defense.

Hardy has two goals in this zone: don’t allow dribble penetration, and don’t allow corner threes. Everything else is what the Jazz want their opponents to take.

So as this clip begins, Talen Horton-Tucker is defending the ballhandler from behind, while Sexton’s there to help on the drive in the front. Kessler is lurking behind. This is really rough driving territory, so the ball is kicked to the wing.

When it is, Simone Fontecchio’s number one goal is to prevent the pass to the corner — even before preventing the shot from the wing. You can see how much he’s shading towards that sideline to prevent that pass. Eventually, the ball is passed again, and the Blazers find DeAndre Ayton down low for a 14-foot push shot... another shot the Jazz love to see.

The old adage when playing zone offense is to get the ball to the center. But you can see how the Jazz would be completely cool with that in most cases: Kessler stepping up to Ayton at the free-throw line with everyone else covered is a good situation for the Jazz, not a bad one.

“We don’t want guys at the top of the key but like, we’re OK with it,” Kessler said. “They’re just guarded by the five, and it’s fine.”

Even when the zone offense is very good, like here when the Knicks drive and move the defense multiple times, the grand benefit of the zone defense is that Kessler is near the rim, and his tremendous NBA skill is that he can block shots that he might even be out of position for.

Understandably, Kessler said the zone was “fun” for him to play. I get why: it’s cool stuff, built around his unique skills!

Yes, better shooting and smarter offensive teams are going to be able to diagnose the defense and play special offensive schemes against it that are going to probably work better than what the Knicks and Blazers brought. But even making opposition offenses think is to the Jazz’s advantage.

“Outside of verticality, the only thing in the NBA that benefits the defense is the shot clock,” Hardy said. “So we need to try to maximize that part of the game. And by being a little bit disruptive mentally, we can eat up a couple of seconds of each possession by trying to make them run something different.”

The most important thing, Hardy says, is not getting too predictable on the defensive end, and the Jazz have been able to do that by throwing some unpredictable schemes at their opponents. That’s an important skill that Hardy thinks will benefit his players down the road, when some of them are on the next Jazz playoff team.