In a league filled with Russell Westbrook's triple-doubles, James Harden's eye-popping offensive production, LeBron James' explosive drives, Kevin Durant's efficiency and Steph Curry and Klay Thompson's shooting barrages, the new sexy is the Utah Jazz defense. Yes, you read that right, defense is the new trendsetter.
Despite losing its last two games, the Jazz are 18-12 and atop the Northwest Division standings. The Jazz owe all of this to their stifling defense. Last week, the Jazz destroyed the Oklahoma City Thunder 109-89. The Thunder was the Jazz's league-leading 10th opponent to fail to reach 90 points. The Thunder's 89 points were 17 points below its season average.
Not surprisingly, the Jazz rank first in scoring defense, allowing just 94.9 points per game on a league-low 42.6 percent field goal percentage. Rudy Gobert, the league's Defensive Player of the Year so far this season, is averaging a league-leading 2.7 blocks, and who knows how many more shots he's altered. Gobert's defensive rating is 97 (which is the average number of points scored on him per 100 possessions). To put that in perspective, the two-time defending DPOY, Kawhi Leonard, has a defensive rating of 102. Other front-runners for DPOY, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Draymond Green, have defensive ratings of 99 and 97 respectively.
Wednesday night, the Jazz defense held Russell Westbrook to a paltry 7 of 25 (28 percent) from the floor. It was the only game of the season that Westbrook played at least 30 minutes and shot worse than 32 percent. The Jazz did this without their starting point guard, George Hill. Dante Exum and Shelvin Mack took turns disrupting Westbrook on the perimeter, and every time Westbrook got near the rim, Gobert, Derrick Favors, Jeff Withey and a host of defenders were there to take away his driving and passing lanes. It was only the fourth time this season that Westbrook didn't have more assists than turnovers. The other teams that did that to Westbrook were the Clippers, Raptors and Celtics. Westbrook had a season-low five assists.
Wednesday night, the Jazz and Gobert held DeMarcus Cousins to 21 points on 5-of-18 (27.7 percent) shooting, his worst shooting performance this season. Cousins is averaging 29.0 points per game on 45 percent shooting and was coming off a 55-point performance. In his two games against the Jazz this season, he has shot 12 of 40 (30 percent) from the floor and averaged just 18.5 points.
Last week, despite missing four regular starters, the Jazz held the Warriors and their league-best offense to 106 points, 12 below their season average. The Jazz held Curry, Durant, Thompson and Green all below 47 percent shooting from the floor. It is the only game this season where at least one of the Warriors' big four did not shoot at least 50 percent from the floor. You see, that's what makes the Warriors tough; with four of the most efficient and explosive scorers in the game, one of them is bound to beat you. The Jazz held them all in check.
In the rematch in Oakland earlier this week, the Jazz may have lost by 30, but that was not due to lack of defense. The Jazz held the Warriors to 44 percent shooting (on the season they shoot 50 percent as a team) and held them 14 points below their season scoring average. Even the Kings Wednesday night were held to 94 points, eight points below their season average. In fact, in the Jazz's 12 losses, only the Blazers, Grizzlies and Heat exceeded their season scoring averages against the Jazz.
ESPN's Zach Lowe recently wrote a piece about the Jazz where he said, "If you don't have a top-10 player, maybe having five top-30 guys will do the trick." Maybe Lowe already knew this, but the Jazz are the only team with four players in the top 40 in real plus/minus: Gobert, Hayward, Hill and Hood. Not even the Warriors, Cavs, Spurs or Clippers have four. The Jazz's mix of young talent and veteran leaders is now starting to pay dividends for Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsay and the Jazz.
The Jazz would be even better if they were healthy. In fact, the Jazz have been so riddled with injuries that, in their 12 losses this season, the Jazz were missing at least one starter and, in every case, multiple rotation players.
Opponent ... Lost by ... Players out
@Blazers ... 9 ... Hayward, Favors, Burks
@Clippers ... 13 ... Hayward, Burks
vs. Spurs ... 14 ... Hayward, Burks, Diaw
@Hornets ... 6 ... Hill, Burks, Diaw
vs. Grizzlies ... 6 ... Hill, Hood, Burks
vs. Bulls ... 8 ... Hill, Favors, Burks
@Rockets ... 9 ... Hill, Favors, Diaw, Burks
@Denver ... 14 ... Hill, Favors, Burks
vs. Heat ... 1 ... Hill, Hood, Favors, Burks
vs. Warriors ... 7 ... Hill, Hayward, Hood, Favors, Burks
@Warriors ... 30 ... Hill, Hood (left sick in 2nd Quarter), Favors, Burks
vs. Kings ... 2 ... Hill, Hood, Exum, Burks
The Jazz's preseason projected starting lineup of Hill, Hood, Hayward, Favors and Gobert has played a grand total of 12 minutes together. Imagine what these guys will be able to do when they all get on the floor together.
Now, while the Jazz's defense is the story, the Jazz offense has come along as well. The Jazz offense ranks seventh in the league in point differential at 4.2 and has the sixth-best field goal percentage. Hayward has pushed his scoring average to a career-best 22.0, Hood, Hill, Gobert and Ingles are also scoring at career-high levels, Gobert is leading the league in field goal percentage at 69.7 percent, and Ingles is leading the league in 3-point percentage at 47.6 percent. But with defense the new sexy, who wants to talk about offense?
Rich Goates is a die-hard NBA and Jazz-fan and publishes an NBA blog, www.LegendGrows.com. He lives in Heber City with his wife and four children.