For the third consecutive year, the Utah Jazz boast one of the best defenses in the league. They rank first in points allowed per game and second (tied with Golden State) in defensive efficiency.
Their defense is anchored by defensive player of the year candidate Rudy Gobert, who leads the league in blocks per game, and, per basketball-reference, makes the Jazz five points better defensively while on the court. As in past years, Utah’s defense is built on preventing penetration, and forcing tough jump shots, with Gobert deterring would-be drivers from even entering the lane.
This defense has helped the Jazz control the four-seed in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, and their unique ability to control the speed of games promises to make them a tough playoff out.
Despite their success, the Jazz haven’t been able to slow down everyone. Against the Boston Celtics, for example, Utah is 0-2 this season, surrendering 112 and 115 points in the two matchups. These marked the highest two point totals scored against the vaunted Jazz defense since their opening day loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.
In the second of the two games, the Celtics were without Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley, who are not only two of their best defenders but also two of their best three-point shooters. A team without consistent shooting from the two or three position should have been easy work for Utah, but Boston instead put up the highest point total Utah has allowed this season.
In doing so, the Celtics provided something of a blueprint to crack this defense, as difficult to execute as it may be.
1. Pull Gobert To The Perimeter
Fortunately for opponents, Gobert is as uncomfortable defending on the perimeter as he is comfortable defending the paint. No matter who the ball handler is, Gobert’s instinct is to fall back to the paint and try to use his length to contest shots. With an even remotely consistent three-point shooter handling the ball, teams can take advantage. The Celtics did so twice in the first quarter.
If Gobert is ever required to step up to a three-point shooter, the most likely outcome is a wide open shot.
2. Shooting Bigs
In addition to Gobert’s natural instincts, since the M.O. of Utah’s defense is to prevent penetration, very few teams go “under” screens, in general, as often as Utah does.
Usually, the guy defending the screen-setter will pseudo-switch onto the ball-handler to prevent the drive and give his guard enough time to recover.
In between the pick and the recover, however, opportunity abounds. While this strategy does effectively stop penetration, it does so by committing two defenders to the ball handler, leaving the screen-setter alone.
As mentioned above, this isn’t specific to plays with Gobert defending, or plays with Isaiah Thomas ball-handling. Watch as a near-identical play unfolds with Derrick Favors falling back against Marcus Smart, with the same result.
Per NBA stats, Utah is the seventh worst defense against spot up jumpers, likely because, so often, these shots are wide open.
Teams would also do well to employ more “slip screens”, a staple of the Golden State Warriors’ offense, against the Jazz. As Steve Kerr explained on the Bill Simmons podcast a few weeks ago
, slip screens are especially effective against teams that pay extra attention to ball handlers. The Celtics ran a variation of a slip screen to open the second half.
Instead of setting a hard screen, Gerald Green “slips” between the two defenders, and, while Gordon Hayward tries to double the ball, Green runs wide open to the basket.
3. Running Bigs
Utah head coach Quin Snyder likes to take it slow. Snyder’s Jazz rank last in the league in pace, second-to-last in offensive transition frequency, and third-to-last in defensive transition frequency (measuring the percentage of their possessions that occur in transition).
This is largely a result of how Snyder coaches rebounding. On most defensive possessions, Utah crashes the boards with as many players as possible, prioritizing securing the rebound over starting a fast break. On offense, Utah does the opposite, dropping at least three players back immediately after a shot goes up to slow any opposing fast break.
The exception to this rule is Rudy Gobert. While Utah sits in the bottom third of the league in offensive rebounding (tied in ORPG with rebound-averse Sacramento and Boston), Gobert averages nearly four offensive rebounds per game, good for third in the league. In other words, Utah’s general approach to the offensive glass is to get three to four players back on defense while Gobert attempts to grab a rebound if possible. While this does grant Utah extra possessions on offense, it also opens up a weakness in their transition defense. If a team is able to get into transition off a long rebound against the Jazz, chances are Utah’s defensive anchor will be late to help.
As a result, teams with front court players willing to run the floor (“running bigs”) can take advantage of Gobert’s aggression. Unsurprisingly, while Utah rarely has to defend in transition, their transition defense ranks in the bottom third league-wide by score frequency, per NBA stats. The Celtics clearly saw this weakness while game-planning, and used it to their advantage.
Running bigs do more than just get open layups. Watch in the following clip as Horford fills the lane, drawing multiple Jazz defenders to help. While by the end of this possession, the Jazz actually have 4-5 players back to defend just three Celtics, the attention Horford draws in the lane creates enough space for a wide open three for Jae Crowder (a 40%+ three-point shooter).
Determined not to get burned again, the Jazz later decided not to double Horford on the break.
Without Gobert in the paint or the help of other defenders, Joe Ingles is forced to pick up Horford in the post. This is an unfair defensive assignment for Ingles, as Horford can just float the ball in over his head.
Between shooting and running, Celtics bigs have made their mark against Utah. Horford and Kelly Olynyk (the Celtics’ two three-point shooting bigs) combine to average 24 points per game on 48% shooting for the Celtics. In their two games against the Jazz, the duo is averaging 30 points on 59% shooting.
4. Exploit Individual Weaknesses
While Utah does boast many high-level defenders, they do have individual weaknesses across their lineup that can be exploited. Specifically, small forwards Trey Lyles and Joe Ingles both sit in the bottom quartile of the league in post defense, allowing opponents to score against them 50% and 53% of the time they post up, respectively.
Given Utah’s propensity for switching screens, these weaknesses can be exploited with relative ease and a bit of patience. Celtics coach Brad Stevens, as always, seemed to have done his homework as well. This was the first play the Celtics ran on offense after Trey Lyles checked into the game.
Similarly, the Dallas Mavericks attacked Joe Ingles late in the fourth quarter of their overtime victory against Utah.
Ingles has enough difficulty guarding his own position in the post, let alone seven-foot centers. Despite this, the Jazz are willing to switch the screen, and the Mavericks are patient enough to exploit it.
There’s no formula to beat this Jazz defense, and if they were to play the Celtics again, I’m not sure I’d bet on the Celtics myself. That said, Boston has had consistent success against Utah using relatively simple offensive concepts and personnel that most contending teams could replicate. Teams preparing for Utah later this season and into the playoffs would do well to take note.
Edited by Jazmyn Brown, David Kaptzan.