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Utah Jazz defense finally shows up to play

A different starting lineup set the tone on Saturday night at the Delta Center

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Utah Jazz guard Kris Dunn (11), New Orleans Pelicans center Jonas Valanciunas (17) and New Orleans Pelicans forward Herbert Jones (5) scramble to recover the ball during an NBA basketball game between the Utah Jazz and the New Orleans Pelicans at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.

Utah Jazz guard Kris Dunn (11), New Orleans Pelicans center Jonas Valanciunas (17) and New Orleans Pelicans forward Herbert Jones (5) scramble to recover the ball during an NBA basketball game between the Utah Jazz and the New Orleans Pelicans at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.

Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

The Utah Jazz have been hoping that they could find a way to get a win that would feel good.

Outshooting the other team is great and it’s a way to get the job done, but to win on the defensive end inspires a different level of confidence.

“This is for sure the first game this year that we’ve won because of our defense,” Jazz head coach Will Hardy said after the Jazz’s 105-100 win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Saturday night. “Our defense kept us in the game and allowed us to kind of hang around. I thought too that every player that took the court tonight really, really competed on that end of the floor.”

The Jazz weren’t without advantages heading into the evening. The New Orleans Pelicans were coming off a gutsy win over the Los Angeles Clippers, but on the second night of a back-to-back they were going to be without Zion Williamson, CJ McCollum and Trey Murphy and the rest of the players were going to be feeling the impact of a tight schedule.

But the Jazz were going to be equally shorthanded with Lauri Markkanen (hamstring soreness) and Jordan Clarkson (illness) sidelined. That being said, Walker Kessler was going to be returning after a three-week absence and Hardy had an idea about how he would get his team to rise above missing their two leading scorers.

Instead of just replacing the missing starters with guys who have started before (Kessler, Talen Horton-Tucker, Collin Sexton, Ochai Agbaji), Hardy reached deeper in the bench and started John Collins and Keyonte George with Simone Fontecchio, Ömer Yurtseven and Kris Dunn.

“From the very beginning of the game, the physicality of the activity on the defensive end was apparent,” Hardy said. “We were able to get stops early in the game and we have not been able to do that of late. It’s hard to start a game when you feel like you have to make every shot to just keep up …So credit to all the guys that were in the first group for their defense.”

There’s no indication that Markkanen or Clarkson will be out for an extended period — Markkanen tweaked his hamstring at practice on Friday and though he wanted to play Saturday the Jazz medical staff figured that caution was the best approach — but the Jazz are still going to be willing to experiment with their depth, no matter who is available if it means there is an increase in defensive effort.

And on Saturday the domino effect was intriguing. With the starting lineup playing their guts out, Kessler, Horton-Tucker, Sexton, Agbaji and Kelly Olynyk all had pretty admirable games off the bench.

There were small moments of lapses, but on the whole it seemed as if everyone stuck to the game plan and allowed the game to dictate ball movement and how to generate open shots or defensively rotate. There was a lot less isolation and a lot more team basketball.

The Jazz didn’t have a player that scored more than 16 points (Sexton was the leading scorer with 16) but they did have six different players in double-digits and every player scored at least five points.

The Jazz forced turnovers and got out in transition, scoring 26 fast break points, they executed their defensive game plan with zeal and passed up good shots for better ones. Even when things weren’t going great (with 15 turnovers in the first half), they found a way to correct their mistakes within the game and closed things out with even more defensive intensity.

“It’s an imperfect game,” Hardy said. “I’ve said that a lot. I expect there to be mistakes in the game. But the number one thing for me is always going to be our competitiveness and how hard we play.”

At least for this night the Jazz earned the win over the Pelicans and did it in a way that they felt proud of.