On Friday night, the Utah Jazz hosted the Milwaukee Bucks, the second-best team in the Eastern Conference featuring reigning Defensive Player of the Year and two-time MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
We all know that the Jazz can score at a high rate, and that they’ve been putting on a shooting clinic for most of the season. Hitting 3-pointers at a historic rate and clip and pushing the offense are all well and good, but the Jazz get most of those opportunities because of what their defense provides them.
With Antetokoumpo and a bevy of weapons surrounding him, the Jazz weren’t going to be able to rely purely on offense to get a win. Instead they let their defense do the talking in a 129-115 victory.
“That’s where it all starts,” Donovan Mitchell said after the game. “Threes are threes, and I’ve said this for years ... we bring defense everywhere, defense travels. There’s times where you may not make a three. But at the end of the day we can bring the effort on defense.”
First and foremost, Royce O’Neale did a great job on Antetokounmpo, and he had a lot of help throughout the game from the rest of his Jazz teammates, namely Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, as I pointed out Friday night in my instant analysis.
What you see in the above clip is O’Neale playing incredibly tight with Antetokounmpo, so much so that he’s not giving even a sliver of room to get a decent floater off in the paint. It forces Antetokounmpo to fling the ball out to the perimeter. Granted, in this instance Bryn Forbes knocks down the 3. But you’d much rather have Forbes, who only takes about four 3s a game, bail out Antetokounmpo in that situation.
Making Antetokounmpo work that hard for position and for every shot and not letting him gain confidence early in the game was key to the Jazz’s success. He scored just a single field goal in the first half, which gave the Jazz a chance to build a 69-52 lead.
This was the only shot that Antetokounmpo took in the second quarter, and because of how O’Neale was playing him, it was an off-balance fadeaway jumper.
But it wasn’t just O’Neale who shined on the defensive end.
In the play above, Miye Oni is tasked with guarding Khris Middleton, which is no small task. Bobby Portis comes up to set a high screen and one of two things happened; either Middleton decided not to use the screen because Gobert was waiting on the other side, or he failed to fake like he was going to use the screen. Either way, Oni sticks with him and stays between him and the basket.
With Georges Niang sliding down toward the basket with the two of them and Gobert close by, there was no room for Middleton to make a play for himself so he tries to swing the ball baseline to Pat Connaughton in the right corner. But Jordan Clarkson sees that’s the only real option Middleton has and steps right into the passing lane for the steal.
In this next clip I wanted to show how well the Jazz rotated when helping on Friday. This particular possession is not the most fluid or graceful example of the Jazz rotating on help defense. It’s actually a little clunky and slow, but so was the Bucks offense so it worked, and a slower rotation makes for a good video example.
So, what you see is O’Neale starting out on Antetokounmpo and getting switched onto Middleton. When the switch happens Bojan Bogdanovic gets in front of Antetokounmpo and O’Neale gets really big and stretches vertically to cut off an easy pass to him from Middleton.
Middleton instead passes to the right to Brook Lopez who is a perfectly capable 3-point shooter, but Gobert came sprinting at him so he figured he’d pump-fake Gobert (which worked) to get inside for something easier. But Bogdanovic slides out and jumps straight up without jumping into Lopez, forcing Lopez to work harder for a shot. At the same time O’Neale rotates back down onto Antetokounmpo and makes sure to get rebounding position and the tangle leads to a Jazz ball.
“He’s a great player, and he’s really tough to play against,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said of Antetokounmpo. “I thought Royce just competed. We had a few guys on him but for the most part Royce was the one that we asked to guard him. He did a good job individually, and obviously you need people to help you — that’s the only chance we have against him because he’s so big and so long and so skilled.”
This next clip is a nice bit of transition defense.
The Bucks start out with a two-on-two fast break with D.J. Augustin pushing and Antetokounmpo trailing. At first both have inside tracks, but Mitchell and O’Neale both wedge their way on the inside.
Mitchell has a size and length advantage over Augustin and uses it to disrupt his shot. O’Neale very slightly slows down during the break just enough to keep Antetokounmpo out of lob position and also keeps himself, again, in good rebounding position for when Augustin’s shot misses.
Niang deserves so much credit for the way he’s improved on defense. It’s not an easy thing to do when you are averaging just 12 minutes per game, but he’s improved in so many different ways. He’s fouling less and moving quicker in all directions — especially laterally — and is a lot smarter with his hands.
You can see in the clip above that Niang realizes he’s late on rotating across the baseline with Torrey Craig. But he recovers beautifully, gets into a nice defensive stance and position with his hand outstretched right in the face of Craig who misses a fadeaway.
In this final clip the Bucks get an offensive rebound and immediately flip it out to Lopez for a corner 3. Bogdanovic closes out hard and fast, and Lopez does exactly what the Jazz want him to do, he gives up the 3 and dribbles straight at Gobert.
If you pause that clip at the four-second mark, you’ll see just incredible defensive positioning. Gobert is forcing Lopez to the very edge of the baseline under the basket (a horrible place to be) while Bogdanovic is sprinting back to cover Connaughton on the 3-point line.
Meanwhile Mitchell and O’Neale are glued to Donte DiVincenzo and Antetokounmpo, respectively, not giving them even the slightest chance at a short pass or favorable rebounding position. And don’t forget about Clarkson, who is rightfully placed between the action and Middleton.
Let the action play out and Lopez has very little choice other than trying to scoop the ball up and around the 7-foot-9 wingspan of Gobert. It didn’t work out for Lopez.
This is just a small sampling of the really great defensive work that the Jazz executed against the Bucks on Friday. Were they perfect the whole game? No. But if not for their tireless efforts on that side of the ball, they might not have pulled off the win.