What seemed to be a lost season for the Utah Jazz has suddenly turned around due to the team's recent success, winning 15 of their last 21 games.
After starting just 7-16, the Jazz have since gone 11-4 and are now in contention for one of the Western Conference's play-in spots. They’ve had an incredible week thus far, with wins over the contending Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets.
The win over the defending-champion Nuggets proved that the Jazz can hang with any team on any given night. Denver was 18-0 against sub-.500 teams entering the game, but Utah stained their erstwhile unblemished slate.
How did the Jazz do it? Let's take a look at some of the things they did to upend the Nuggets.
The Jazz stretched the floor
With John Collins starting at center instead of Walker Kessler, Utah's game plan was to pull Nikola Jokic from the paint. Jokic, who’s usually a drop-big on defense, almost always stays near the shaded area in pick-and-roll actions. Utah tried to take advantage of this early by hunting out threes and exploiting the point-of-attack defenses of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. Four of their first five attempts were three-pointers and they connected on two to jump out to an early lead.
Denver tried to counter by running zone, leaving Collins open a couple of times in the first quarter. However, Collins made them pay by hitting two threes, as Jokic was more than content to leave him open for threes. This allowed the Jazz to get rolling even more and gave them the freedom to attack the basket and get downhill.
Another possession in the zone found Reggie Jackson and Jokic in a miscommunication, leading to Jordan Clarkson drilling an easy 10-foot jumper. When the Nuggets tried to switch up their defense back to a man-to-man, the Jazz found the answer with some off-ball movement and timely cuts to the rim. Overall, it was an offensive clinic that caught the defending champs off guard.
The Jazz mixed their coverages on Jokic and gave him different looks on defense
You can't entirely stop an all-world talent like Nikola Jokic, you could only hope to contain him, which is still really tough considering how talented he is and his ability to get his teammates involved.
Although he still put up a monstrous stat line of 27 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists on an absurd 8-of-9 shooting from the field, what the Jazz and Will Hardy did was mix-up coverages on him. They showed multiple defensive looks each time down, which partly confused Jokic as he committed 6 turnovers in the game.
Sometimes, it was single coverage; other times, they sent doubles at him. Three different players — Lauri Markannen, Collins and Kessler — each took turns guarding him and all three provided different looks on the Joker. Markannen used his strength, Collins had his quickness and quick hands, while Kessler provided verticality with his 7-foot-1 frame.
The Jazz also sent different doubles at Jokic, sometimes crowding him in the paint with early double-teams, breaking up his low-post attacks with guards doubling him, and sending late doubles with another big or using a help weakside defender to try to affect him as he attempted a shot.
All of these defensive coverages were designed to make Jokic feel uncomfortable with different styles thrown at him, and the Jazz were successful at that with this blowout win.
Will Hardy figured out the rotations and had the Jazz playing with confidence
Although their defense is still suspect, the Jazz’s offense has been nothing but spectacular. This can be attributed to head coach Will Hardy figuring out his rotation and which players synergize well together. This impressive run over their last 20 games started when Hardy made Kris Dunn, Collin Sexton, Simone Fontecchio, Lauri Markannen and John Collins the starting five. Off the bench, Jordan Clarkson and Kelly Olynyk provide stability as veterans while second-year guys Walker Kessler and Ochai Agbaji help out on defense with their length and tenacity.
Utah’s offense was on full display against Denver, picking them apart with set plays and off of read-and-react actions. Although the Nuggets were coming off two days of rest and just an hour flight, the Jazz capitalized on their momentum and pounced right from the start.
Markannen has picked up right where he left off in last season’s All-Star campaign, maintaining his shooting and scoring while improving his ball-handling this season. He’s much better off the dribble now, which makes him one of the most coveted (if not most coveted) trade targets as the Feb. 8 deadline approaches.
Clarkson has also learned to move the ball more since being back to his regular sixth man role while continuing to score the ball effectively, and it has produced good results.
Dunn and Sexton allow the Jazz to play with pace and energy on both sides of the floor and their efforts are infectious.
Despite all of the trade rumors swirling around this team and rival teams trying to pry their players away, GM Danny Ainge and coach Will Hardy deserve credit for helping the Jazz build good habits and play the right way, which has resulted in beautiful basketball all around.