1. Utah’s defense has the Bobcats offense figured out.
Part of it may be the familiarity of Al Jefferson, but the Jazz have won the season series against Charlotte by defending the Bobcats much better than any other team in the league. For Queen City Hoops earlier today, I predicted Charlotte’s defense would again hold the Jazz, but in this matchup, as opposed to last Saturday’s, the Bobcats would score more than 85 points. I was right about the former, but not the latter.
What did the Jazz do well? First, they allowed just 36.9% shooting from the floor overall. Perhaps more interesting was how the defense breaks down by shot location:
Basically, the Bobcats shot well from outside of the arc, and really poorly everywhere else. Credit to Derrick Favors for both excellent man defense on Al Jefferson, and then preventing the other Bobcats from making 15 of their 27 shots within 3 feet. This is actually the opposite of how the Jazz usually defend: their 2-point shot defense is ranked 23rd, whereas their 3-point shot defense is ranked 18th. Tonight, they prevented the 2 point shot at a very elite level, and did so against the Bobcats last Saturday as well. What was the difference?
Both coaches and players explained much of the success as familiarity with Al Jefferson. As Trey Burke explained, “We know their guys: Kemba Walker, and really Al Jefferson. They like to go down low to him and try to get him going. I thought we did a good job of containing him, sending that extra guy at him, rotating out, then covering up shooters, and that really allowed us to contain him at the defensive end.” Gordon Hayward agreed: ”Al is obvious a load down there, so if you make some of his shots difficult, and coach made a nice adjustment having us double-team from the baseline side, those things helped us out tonight.”
Should these two teams meet in the Finals, the Jazz will clearly have the upper hand.
2. On the other hand, the Bobcats played great defense as well.
Last season, the Charlotte Bobcats were the worst team in the league defensively, ranked 30th, the Jazz weren’t much better at 21st. The Bobcats, looking to improve, inexplicably signed known defensive horror-show Al Jefferson… and it’s paid immediate dividends. The Bobcats now have the 3rd(!!) best defense in the league, allowing just 100.7 points per 100 possessions, while the Jazz have slipped to dead last.
For Jazz fans, though, it comes as a huge surprise, as most (including myself) had written off Al Jefferson as unfixably horrible defensively, the biggest reason why the Jazz were playing poor defense and cratering their playoff hopes. Instead, it appears that was wildly unfair to Big Al.
Remember, last year, Zach Lowe said this about Al:
“We have almost a decade of evidence now that Jefferson’s failings on defense outweigh his very real value on offense. His teams have generally been worse with him on the floor than with him on the bench, and that’s been true on the defensive end in almost every season in which he’s played meaningful minutes, per NBA.com and 82games.com.”
Then, today I asked Bobcats coach Steve Clifford about Al’s defense before the game:
“His pick and roll defense has been good, but you know what, he has good lateral quickness and he has good instincts. He moves well that way. His help defense has been very good. His coverages and stuff like that have been very good.”
He’s saying things like this about Al Jefferson! And they’re true! This is the result that’s really forcing me to reconsider everything I know about evaluating NBA defense, especially individually. I’m lost.
3. The Jazz seem to defend “flow” offensive teams well. Maybe.
The above being said, the Bobcats aren’t a good offensive team. But Steve Clifford said pregame that he felt that his team was best offensively when they get the ball into the halfcourt quickly and then go into a “flow” offense – i.e., go without a playcall, just run picks, space the floor, and use ball movement to get open shots. This system can work really well, but hasn’t for the Bobcats against the Jazz.
It’s just a trend of two, but I have a hypothesis: the Jazz’s defense does well against simple actions, like standard pick and roll, but struggle hugely when faced with complexity. That’s why we might see them give up, say, 117 points against the Heat – teams that throw wrinkles into an offense, things like double screens, trick motions, elevator doors, etc. That all can really only happen in a set play call. It’s just a hypothesis, certainly not one backed by statistically significant evidence, but perhaps a trend to watch moving forward. It would make sense for a young team to struggle against complex offensive actions they likely haven’t seen before.