For years, a stifling defense was one of the Utah Jazz’s calling cards, which made sense considering they had a three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year patrolling the paint.
If you ask Jazz coach Will Hardy, Utah’s recent performance against Zion Williamson and the red-hot New Orleans Pelicans could be considered its best defensive performance since the franchise traded defensive powerhouse Rudy Gobert to Minnesota this past offseason.
Whether the Jazz defense can stymie the Pelicans again will be an intriguing aspect of the teams’ turnaround rematch Thursday in Salt Lake City.
In their 121-100 blowout win over the Pelicans on Tuesday, the Jazz held New Orleans — previously the league’s third-ranked scoring offense — to its second-lowest scoring total of the season. The visitors, who saw their seven-game winning streak get snapped, only shot 39.8 percent overall and made only 4 of 27 3-point tries.
And because of foul problems, Williamson may have scored 26 points — but he was held to just 26 minutes.
“That’s a really good team that we just played. They’ve been playing some of the best basketball in the NBA lately,” Hardy said of New Orleans, which had won 12 of 14 games before Tuesday’s one-sided setback. “I’m very proud of the team tonight. Just a really good team effort.”
“What stood out to me was how connected we were on the defensive end. That’s our best defensive game of the season,” Hardy continued. “Identifying the game plan, helping each other, rebounding as a team. I thought our guys did a great job holding our own on that end. It allowed us to come out of here with a big win in front of the home crowd.”
Utah’s offense was top notch, too. It helped that the Jazz were nearly at full strength after missing several key players for multiple games because of illness and injuries.
Malik Beasley topped six Utah scorers in double figures with 21 points. Lauri Markkanen returned from an illness to total 19 points and 11 rebounds, Nickeil Alexander-Walker added 19 points and six assists, and Jarred Vanderbilt amassed 18 points, 14 rebounds and six assists.
New Orleans, which brought the best record in the Western Conference to Utah, will try to regroup and improve its 6-6 mark away from home.
“We got to step on the court and step on the floor and understand that teams are gonna come after us, just like we go after teams,” New Orleans coach Willie Green said. “We didn’t execute on both ends of the floor. Give them credit. They just kicked our butts.”
Jonas Valanciunas had a solid game for the Pelicans, scoring 15 points with six rebounds and two steals. He was the only New Orleans starter with a positive plus-minus as the Pelicans outscored the Jazz by five during his 19 minutes played.
Green was disappointed that the Pelicans allowed the Jazz to essentially wrap the game up in the third quarter. Utah took a 20-point lead into the fourth after Jordan Clarkson capped an 8-0 run with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
“It was just a funky game for us,” Green said. “We know that there’s a lot of good with our team right now, but tonight was just not our night. … The energy, the effort, the mindset just wasn’t there.”
–Field Level Media