Jazz roaring on defense as Blazers visit
It has taken a while longer than expected, but Utah has become the defensive monster everyone expected to see after the Jazz dominated on that end of the court last season.
During January, the Jazz lead the NBA with a 101.7 defensive rating. Utah is averaging 39.6 defensive rebounds, 7.0 steals, and 6.3 blocks per game. The Jazz are limiting opponents to a league best 9.7 second-chance points per game in January and just 10.8 fast-break points per game in the same stretch.
It's a major reason why Utah enters Monday's clash with the visiting Portland Trail Blazers riding a six-game winning streak.
"It starts on the defensive end and we're playing great defense as of late," Jazz forward Jae Crowder said. "We're all on the same page and communicating well."
Rudy Gobert, the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year, has keyed the defensive momentum with his own January surge. Gobert has averaged 20.0 rebounds per game in his last four contests. He has three consecutive games with at least 15 points and 15 rebounds.
Such dominance around the paint is making things easier on offense.
Utah showed as much in a 115-99 win over Cleveland on Friday -- a game in which the Jazz led by as many as 38 points in the third quarter. Utah shot 51.8 percent from the floor and finished with 60 points in the paint.
The Jazz created momentum from their stifling defense. The Jazz held Cleveland to 31 percent shooting through the first three quarters and forced a dozen turnovers in the first 36 minutes.
"It's the same team we were last year," guard Donovan Mitchell said. "The same team that came in and was aggressive on defense. That's what really leads us into transition and getting easy shots."
Portland understands quite well how tough it is to get going offensively when Utah is clicking defensively.
The Trail Blazers averaged just 93 points per game in a pair of December losses to their divisional rivals. They shot a combined 39.8 percent from the floor in those two games and averaged 13 turnovers.
Portland has done well since that time. The Trail Blazers have won nine of 13 since their Christmas Day loss in Salt Lake City and carry a two-game winning streak into Monday's rematch.
Offensive efficiency has played a big role in the current two-game streak. Portland committed just 11 total turnovers in victories over Cleveland on Wednesday and New Orleans on Friday, while averaging 128.5 points in those games.
"We've had stretches where we've had a lot of turnovers and it's been a problem," guard Damian Lillard said. "Now we're in a space where we're taking care of the ball. Our offense is reaping the benefit of that with more possessions and making higher percentage passes for higher percentage shots."
Lillard has been a driving force, making a bigger impact as a distributor during this run of success.
Lillard's scoring in January has dipped a bit. He is averaging 23.6 points per game this month, but his assist numbers have climbed to 7.6 per game after averaging just 5.3 per contest in December.
Monday's game carries postseason implications for both teams. Another victory for Utah will help the Jazz clinch the season series and give the Jazz a valuable tiebreaker over Portland.
--Field Level Media
Updated January 20, 2019