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Ryan Miller: Did trading Kanter turn Jazz into a defensive juggernaut?

SALT LAKE CITY — Heading into the Jazz’s 92-76 victory over Portland Friday, the goal was to figure out just how the Utah offense would work with Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors.

It was clear that Utah would improve on the defensive end by giving the Stifle Tower more minutes, but would the Jazz be able to replace the departed Enes Kanter’s offensive production?

That investigation will have to wait for another day, because, what was that?

The Jazz defense suffocated the high-powered Portland offense, holding it to a season-low 76 points in a — excuse the hyperbole — defensive masterpiece.

So with Kanter gone have the Jazz suddenly turned into a defensive juggernaut?

“He (Kanter) was a big part of this team,” Utah forward Trevor Booker said. “He was a big-time scorer, rebounder, but I think we got better defensively.”

It would seem so.

This could be a classic case of addition by subtraction, and it wasn’t just the fact that Gobert received more minutes.

Portland started the contest pretty well offensively. The Blazers had a six-point lead at the end of the first quarter, and Gobert was on the bench after picking up two quick fouls after falling for two pump fakes.

“He (Gobert) was probably excited,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “He left his feet, I know (assistant coach) Alex Jensen was angry because we showed him about 10 clips and said, ‘don’t leave your feet.’ Against a player of that caliber, it’s hard not to.”

Gobert’s absence may have actually sparked the defensive intensity.

Booker replaced the French center, and after weeks of little to no playing time, Booker unleashed all that pent up energy. He went after offensive rebounds; he dove for loose balls, and he switched on defense aggressively. The energy was contagious.

Following Booker’s lead, Gordon Hayward made a shift off the ball, got in the passing lane for a steal and raced down the court for a two-handed dunk.

“I think that for me, that got us going on the defensive end,” Snyder said of Hayward's play. “It got us more aggressive. Everyone that came in the game took a lot of pride in that.”

And Snyder meant everyone. No matter who came in the contest, the defensive intensity stayed the same. The Jazz played as a unit, often times with constant switching. There were moments that defenders would get beat by the slashing Blazer guards, but a Utah player would be there to help. This is the defense that Snyder has been preaching about since he got to Utah, and it finally all came together.

“It was everybody,” Booker said. “If we go back and break down the film, if someone got beat somebody else was right there to help them, and that’s what we need to keep improving; just to know that we all got each other's backs.”

The Jazz only allowed 33 points in the second half, as Gobert was back on the court for extended time blocking and altering shots, and providing a sense of security for his team.

In his time in Utah, Kanter was killed time and time again trying to defend the pick-and-roll, and he and Trey Burke were especially bad together. That's why Burke's performance on Friday is so encouraging. Burke played 28 minutes, and it was a rare to see the Jazz get beat in the pick-and-roll.

“I think it was one of the best defensive games that Trey’s played all year,” Snyder said. “I was really happy to see him compete, pressure the ball and his pick-and-roll defense was really good.”

Those are words not often associated with Burke.

Maybe it was the All-Star break, or maybe it was the trade, but the Jazz played with a different energy Friday. Kanter's trade demands showed he wasn't happy in Utah. It's not so crazy to think that his teammates knew of his unhappiness long before his request, which could have created negative effects.

Friday night, the Jazz played as a team; they played for each other, and because of it their defense looked like it was one the best in the league.

Utah used its defense to make a 20-4 run in the third quarter and then an 18-4 run to open up the fourth to blow the game open.

The defensive effort aided the Jazz on the offensive side of the court, including setting up one of the plays of the game. Booker blocked LaMarcus Aldridge and the ball bounced right to Gobert who threw a two-handed pass to up court to Booker, who threw down a two-handed dunk to the delight of the home crowd.

The performance came as a pleasant surprise to the Utah head coach.

“I was really concerned coming back from the break,” Snyder said. “I thought that we made progress defensively and felt like it was a long enough break that I didn’t know entirely what to expect.”

Can Jazz fans now expect this type of performance night in and night out?

It was one game, and it would be unwise to draw too many conclusions from such a small sample size, but it appears just removing Kanter from the lineup made the Jazz significantly better on the defensive end.

There is no reason the Jazz can't duplicate their performance against Portland. If Utah fans were lacking hope of the future, they should have found some Friday.