The Utah Jazz have made significant strides this season in improving as a team, and it has culminated in their lockdown defense.
Prior to the All-Star Weekend, the Jazz were ranked a woeful 27th in defensive rating. The Kanter/Gobert debate brewed for a while, but Enes Kanter's departure to the Thunder ended that discussion. The move freed up major minutes for Rudy Gobert to assume a starting role on the team.
The Frenchman has come to be known as the Stifle Tower (aka the second coming of Mark Eaton) this season, and there are 152 good reasons (read: blocks) for this moniker. (Yes, much disrespect even for you, Timmy.)
After the All-Star break, Jazz opponents have really struggled to score. Gobert's disruptive presence has effectively discouraged teams from taking shots at the rim.
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They only take 13.7 shot attempts in that area, which is the fewest in the league. (In contrast, the T-Wolves allow 20.4 attempts a game.)
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Gobert's defensive capabilities has in turn allowed the Jazz guards to play tougher perimeter defense, and the difference has been keenly felt. Opposing teams have only managed to score 6 threes at an inefficient 28.8%, had difficulty sharing the ball (only 17.5 assists), and were held to 82.8 points a game.
Aussie duo Joe Ingles and Danté Exum were loose and light-hearted during today's Q&A with Asian/Australian basketball media. During the session, Exum fully agreed with the picture their recent success has painted. Exum has benefited greatly from having Gobert's shot-blocking insurance, as he is now free to use his length and speed to full effect, without being overly concerned about making defensive lapses. His defensive rating has gone from a porous 102.2 before the break, to a stingy 87.4 since.
"Knowing Rudy is behind, and [having him] to be that rim protector helps me be a bit more disruptive on the defensive end, take a few more gambles. He's definitely a good asset to have on the team."
Ingles however, attributed it to more to team chemistry and everyone getting comfortable with coach Snyder's system.
"We haven’t done anything different, more of just the group [knowing] each other, playing more, having more time together, having a lot of time with the coach and [a] new system... things just take time and I think we’ve got better over the season as well. After the All-Star break it has all clicked, and like you said, now we're kind of firing."
Unlike Boston, Utah's success does not seem to signal a frenetic push for the post-season. Both players firmly felt that the playoffs were a good-to-have option, and agreed the goal was to maintain their style of play and get better together.
"I wouldn’t say [we have] given up hope, anything can happen in the NBA. I think we’re just focused on ourselves at the moment and improving every game. If it happens to be that we get in that picture then so be it, but we’re not changing anything. [That being said] we’re obviously still going to try and win."
It is obvious the Jazz have got their eyes on a prize different from the other teams. In this case, it's all about developing the team and staying competitive for years to come. Jingles said it best, when discussing the differences between being on the Clippers, and how being on the Jazz felt like.
"Being the second-youngest team in the NBA, it's obviously about the future. As much as you want to win right now, you know it's a process."
The Jazz are making strides in their rebuild, and their defensive identity is slowly solidifying around Gobert's emergence. Exum's continued growth, and Ingles' veteran leadership alongside Gordon Hayward can mean nothing but good things for the team.
The 2014-2015 season is coming to a close, and great expectations are ahead.
Exum and Gobert: I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine via Believe The Hype, Benyam Kidane
Joe Ingles breaks down Dante Exum’s latest #GQStyleWars Photo via Believe The Hype, Tom Read
A Team Grows in Utah via NBA Australia, Angus Crawford