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Utah Jazz contending with defensive rust after 4 months away from the game

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Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder calls out to his team as the Utah Jazz and the Boston Celtics play an NBA basketball game at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. Boston won 114-103.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — For two months, the Utah Jazz players were unable to even enter their practice facility at Zions Bank Basketball Campus, relying only on at-home equipment. At worst, some players went weeks without shooting a basketball. Some had stand-alone outdoor hoops. At best, they had access to an indoor court.

Still, even after the practice facility opened up on May 11, players were only allowed to workout individually. They could go through conditioning drills, lift weights and get up shots with a masked rebounder, but shooting the ball is only a portion of the game. Defense is not something that can be easily simulated individually.

“We weren’t playing against and competing against any other guys,” Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson said of the months before arriving in Florida.

As exhibition scrimmages got underway this week in the NBA bubble at Walt Disney World, one thing became abundantly clear: It was going to take a little longer to shake off the defensive rust accumulated during the NBA shutdown.

“Defense is something that we’ve got to focus on more coming into this and playing other teams,” Clarkson said. “It’s definitely harder to pick up after a long break like that.”

The Jazz have been practicing as a team since July 9, and while the last couple of weeks have been helpful, especially offensively, there’s no substitute for competition.

It’s one thing to defend one of your teammates in practice, when there are no stakes and you’re allowed to hold back, all the while knowing the tendencies and play calls. It’s a completely different animal when you’re going against a different team that is fighting to reach the same goal and knock you off along the way.

“We can focus on some of those things now that you don’t have a chance to do in practice,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said. “You can talk about them and work on them, but until you’re in a game and competing, it doesn’t resonate as much until you play somebody.”

When the Jazz took to the floor on Thursday against the Phoenix Suns in the first of three scrimmages leading up to the season restart on July 30, there were glaring issues on the defensive end.

The Suns shot 60% from the floor in the first quarter, and the Jazz didn’t get near a steal or block and seemed far away from a fluid defensive rotation.

“We’re a defensive team. It may not have looked like it the first few minutes, but it’ll just take us a little bit to get back in the flow of things,” Donovan Mitchell said after the game. “That’s what these exhibition games are for. It’s the first time we played in four-and-a-half months. There’s going to be things we have to work on — that was one of the biggest things.”

On Friday, the Jazz held practice with the top priority of addressing defensive deficiencies. This time, they had a resource that they’ve been without for more than four months: fresh film.

Able to rewatch what they did and did not do against the Suns, the Jazz focused their time on three areas of team defense.

“Getting back in transition, keeping the guys out of the paint and us rotating,” Clarkson said. “Those are the big things we’re concentrating on in these scrimmages and going forward.”

The more the Jazz are able to compete against someone other than themselves, the more film they’ll have to watch, more examples of what needs to be done. And, as the defensive rust starts to fade away and the team defense principles become clearer, so too will their individual instincts on that side of the ball.