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Step in the right direction: Unpacking the Jazz’s recent success

The Jazz are now starting to find their stride this season

Utah Jazz v Toronto Raptors Photo by Vaughn Ridley/NBAE via Getty Images

Heading into Christmas, the Utah Jazz sport a 12-18 record, which is good for 12th in the Western Conference. But in their last seven games, the team has won five out of those assignments. During this stretch, Utah has both their offensive rating and net rating ranked 13th and 14th in defensive rating.

There’s still definitely room for improvement within the team, and the good thing is, they are trending towards the right direction. We’re here to unpack how the Jazz have performed!

Let’s use this recent Jazz 126-119 win over the Toronto Raptors (on the road!!!), arguably the best dub of the season so far. They were able a 16-point deficit at halftime – thanks to the scoring heroics of Lauri Markkanen and Jordan Clarkson, play-making from Kris Dunn, and stout rim protection of Walker Kessler.

That’s exactly why this game encapsulates the current run of the Jazz, a group trying to figure out what works well. So it’s time to deep dive into the process of how this squad is trying to find the right mix on both ends of the floor.

Tapping the defensive versatility

In their first half showing versus the Raptors, the struggle was pretty much evident especially on the defensive end. Raptors star Scottie Barnes just scored at will, as he dropped 24 points in the first two quarters of the game. What’s been impressive from the 2021 Rookie of the Year has been his growth shooting-wise – career-high clip from deep at 38.3%. Unfortunately, it looked like the Jazz players weren’t prepared for this version of Barnes in the first two quarters.

Here’s some sequences that exemplified the aforementioned point. First one is Markkanen losing track of Barnes on the break that resulted in a wide open three. While the second play is just an egregious way of defending transition basketball for another triple.

Speaking of poor open court defense, the Jazz in totality gave up a ton of easy buckets to the Raptors in transition. For the season, per Synergy, they have allowed 1.177 points per possession (PPP) – which is the fifth worst in the league. This was prevalent in three consecutive fastbreak opportunities that the Raptors had.

Worth noting that Walker Kessler only played a total of six minutes in the first half. Wonder what the adjustment made by head coach Will Hardy did? Play his defensive center 19 minutes in the second half.

The normal scheme that the Jazz have gone with Kessler is the drop coverage, but a little tweak was made to slow down Barnes. With every ball screen that involved him as the ball handler, it was an automatic switch for Kessler to keep the ball in front and make it a one-on-one isolation contest. It had a good rationale since the size of the second-year player is bothersome even to taller wings or bigs and Barnes doesn’t offer quick laterals to blow by defenders.

Just peep at how Kessler made the looks tougher:

Now back to his base of being in a drop in the pick-and-roll, one aspect that the Jazz failed to capitalize on is having a good screen navigator. We’ve all known that this coverage will always give up a pull-up option because of the space. It’s up for the point-of-attack (POA) defender to stay attached or provide resistance once he fully recovers from the screen – which guard Kris Dunn has done masterfully throughout his career.

When the game got tight in crunch time, the combination of Kessler and Dunn worked wonders in stifling the pick-and-rolls of the Raptors. Perimeter defense was spot on, rim protection was intimidating to drive against = crucial stops to seal the win.

According to PBP Stats, the Jazz are winning by a whopping 20.07 points in the 127 minutes Kessler and Dunn have shared the court. It’s intriguing if we’ll see more of them inserted by Coach Hardy in different units moving forward.

Generating paint touches on offense

An offensive jolt was quickly infused to the Jazz with the return of Jordan Clarkson to the lineup. Reprising from a role he succeeded previously, the former Sixth Man of the Year scored 30 points in 30 minutes coming off the bench for the first time this season.

Of course, everyone is accustomed to seeing the scoring prowess of Clarkson, especially his own shot creation (whether for the good and bad lol). However, the aspect that really popped was his drives – making the defense geared collapse towards the paint.

To provide some perspective, even considerably having a down shooting year, Clarkson remains to have a ‘very good’ rating in terms of shooting around the short midrange area (17 feet and below the basket) at a rate 50% from the field, per Synergy. Indeed, he was extremely efficient in that range against the Raptors – highlighting the importance of paint touches.

Clarkson has also shown his willingness to dish and play-make for his teammates. This will be vital to capitalize his ability to get paint touches. A statistical nugget to note here is that he is having his highest assist percentage of 25.2% – per Basketball Reference.

Overall, the Jazz offense has been hovering around the middle to top 10 in regards of rim rate (10th) and points per possession at the rim (13th). Case in point is the patented curl of Lauri Markkanen coming from the weakside screening action. We don’t have official or readily available stats to the public to track those, but if you’ve paid attention to Jazz basketball – it’s common knowledge how effective this play is. Yes to rim pressure!

It’s been a challenging year finding out what formula or blueprint would work for the current composition of the Jazz roster. Multiple injuries causing different lineups thrown or may it be just clear deficiencies in some aspects, the job the coaching brain trust has done should be applauded at least. With the strength of schedule about to be harder, the team and the fans hope that they grew during this specific point of the season.