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Defensive improvement now the norm for Jazz

Utah Jazz's Quin Snyder in action during an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Friday, March 6, 2015, in Philadelphia.
Utah Jazz's Quin Snyder in action during an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Friday, March 6, 2015, in Philadelphia.
Matt Slocum, Associated Press

NEW YORK — If you want to witness Quin Snyder squirm, twitch and perhaps laugh nervously, just ask him about the progress the Utah Jazz have made this season.

It might even be more fun to see what happens if you congratulate him.

This weekend, when the subject arose of how his team has improved from the bottom to the middle of the NBA’s defensive efficiency ratings, Snyder chuckled and rapped his knuckles against the dark blue cloth Jazz TV backdrop, as if he were superstitiously knocking on wood.

“Knock on everything,” Snyder quipped.

The one thing you can’t really knock on right now, though, is the Jazz’s improvement.

While they aren’t going to be a rags-to-riches story with a playoff appearance, the Jazz already have reached their wins total from a year ago (25). And there's still 21 games to go before the 2014-15 regular season ends.

Defensively, the Jazz have gone from being the worst to among the best.

In the past 11 games, Utah has the NBA’s top defense, holding opponents to an average of 91.6 points per 100 possessions. That performance — in a decent sample size, mind you — was impressive enough to be tweeted out by the league’s official statistics Twitter account (@nbastats).

Utah, by the way, is 8-3 during this dazzling defensive stretch.

So why the fidgety reaction by Coach Q?

Simply put: Being the 18th-ranked defense (up a spot since Friday) isn’t what he’s aiming for.

“We’ve figured out how we want to play on defense, and are we able to do it all the time? No. But we’re approaching that,” Snyder said.

“I think if you asked our players, they know I’m not going to be satisfied with any of it frankly. I feel like that’s what I need to do to keep us improving.”

Snyder doesn’t just want defensive numbers to keep improving.

The first-year Jazz coach wants his players to attack different areas of defense more effectively, try different tactics, such as switching on various pick-and-rolls and utilizing a variety of schemes to throw at offenses.

One area in which the Jazz have advanced this season — along with the rim-protection provided by defensive-minded bigs Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors — is 3-point defense.

Utah's opponents are now hitting 36.2 percent from beyond the arc compared to 37.6 percent last season. In the past 15 games, Jazz foes are hitting just 32.9 percent from 3-point range.

Snyder said his players are shifting better, being more cognizant of where shooters are and communicating more openly.

“(Assistant coach) Alex Jensen has a saying, ‘My body’s here, but my mind’s there,’” Snyder said.

That is just one example of the Jazz’s improvement.

“You don’t want to add something until you feel like you’ve mastered what you’re doing,” Snyder said. “Although we haven’t mastered it yet, I think we have reached a level of efficiency where we can hopefully kind of stretch one another and keep getting better too.”

Snyder said he laughed when the question about defensive improvement came up because it reminded him of being peppered about how poorly the defense performed early in the season.

“I laugh,” he said, “because it was painful.”

Less painful now, of course. But there's plenty of work to be done in order to get the Jazz to focus on stifling defense over the course of the season instead of just for a few weeks.

Snyder admitted he doesn’t want to look at defensive rankings because it’s not where he wants to be.

“The biggest thing honestly is our communication’s improved. We’ve been covering for each other more,” he said, adding that multiple players are contesting shots.

“We don’t quit on plays. I think there’s an increased urgency.”

Snyder believes the Jazz have an increased understanding, too. He said he likes how his players can often make defensive adjustments following breakdowns without him having to call a timeout or getting after somebody.

“There’s an awareness and, yes … you can tell it hurts them when we give up a basket or someone has a breakdown,” he said. “I think there’s a real sense that they have each other’s backs.”

Snyder also pointed out how the Jazz's bench play has improved, specifically crediting backup swingman Elijah Millsap for giving “a big boost defensively” in Friday’s 89-83 win at Philadelphia.

Favors, who endured last year’s 25-57 season and was a bright spot on a mostly dreadful defensive squad, is enjoying the process of making progress.

“I think that shows growth that we have guys coming out on the offensive end doing their job, on the defensive end communicating, playing hard,” Favors said. “When it comes down to the fourth quarter, everybody’s buying in to what Coach Quin wants us to do.

“Overall,” Favors added, “I think we’re improving as a team and individually everybody’s improving their games.”

For now, that’s about all a coach could ask for.

Of course, that won’t stop Snyder for demanding even more.

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