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The keys to the Utah Jazz improving their transition defense

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Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder instructs his team.

Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder works the court during the game against the Philadelphia 76ers at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Prior to Tuesday night’s Utah Jazz win over Philadelphia, 76ers head coach Doc Rivers was asked what the key is to transition defense?

“Man I wish I knew,” Rivers said. “We’re bad. We were bad last year at it. I had never been bad at transition as a coach, so it drives me nuts. I think the No. 1 thing is stopping the ball. At some point someone has to declare the ball and stop it. The second thing is discipline from the corners.”

When a veteran coach like Rivers starts talking about critical elements of one of the most important parts of the game, you listen. So my interest was piqued. Not because the Sixers’ inability to guard in transition was particularly important, but because the Jazz were sitting at 27th in the league in transition defense. 

I think everyone would agree that stopping the ball is an important component. We’ve seen the Jazz fail at that many times this season already. To their credit, they did a much better job against the Sixers on Tuesday, but it was against an incredibly shorthanded team that is reeling without its stars.

To Rivers’ second point about the players in the corner being more disciplined, I think there’s a lot of work for the Jazz to do in that department. What he’s talking about are his shooters who are stationed in the corners on offense. When a shot goes up, Rivers said he wants those players to make a decision and react before the ball hits the rim.

They have to decide if they’re going to crash the glass, or get back and protect the paint. If a player is caught watching the ball until it hits the rim, the other team could already be out and running, and then it’s too late.

“Getting back and then also being shifted to the point where the paint doesn’t look open,” Snyder said. “Obviously, you’ve got to know where shooters are as well. ... But, we’ve got to protect the rim and that means protecting the paint.” — Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder on transition defense

It takes a lot of mental fortitude to react in that split second between the release of a shot and when the shot gets to the rim. But that is what is required of a team that wants to play well defensively — the players have to be able to make those quick decisions.

The Jazz have not been making very quick decisions this season. They’ve been caught ball-watching, wing players have crashed the boards unnecessarily and they’ve been slow to get back.

After the game, I asked Quin Snyder if he agreed with Rivers, and if there was anything else he would add as the keys of transition defense.

“Getting back and then also being shifted to the point where the paint doesn’t look open,” Snyder said. “Obviously, you’ve got to know where shooters are as well. ... But, we’ve got to protect the rim and that means protecting the paint.”

I found all of this information really interesting, because you’ve got two of the most respected coaches in the NBA giving a pretty simple blueprint on how to effectively slow things down and create a half-court situation.

The defending team has to have someone who is stopping the ball, the corner guys have to react quickly and make sure they get out in front and, in tandem with the rest of the players, they have to identify shooters and surround the front-court players to create a wall so the paint doesn’t look like a runway to an open bucket.

Like I said, the Jazz did a good job of getting in front of the play and stopping the break on Tuesday. What’s going to be really important in the coming weeks is whether they can maintain that discipline against multiple teams, across multiple games.

Playing good transition defense against a depleted Sixers roster in mid-November is one thing. But it’s just one game.

Can the Jazz continue to build on that effort against the Toronto Raptors on Thursday? Can they string together multiple games of solid transition defense through the next couple of weeks and then on the road next month?

That’s what is going to matter and that’s what they have to do.