* Tonight on TNT: Rockets vs. Jazz, 10:30 ET
Back in October, there was a writer, maybe on this site, who wrote that the Utah Jazz were better than their record last season. That same writer then put the Jazz at No. 5 in his preseason Power Rankings, with the thought that their defense would remain elite and their best offensive player would be even better than he was as a rookie.
Fast forward seven weeks and the Jazz are 12-13, in 12th place in the West. On Thursday, the Jazz will host the similarly disappointing Houston Rockets (11-12) in the second game of TNT's doubleheader.
The Jazz have taken steps backward on both ends of the floor. Entering Thursday's game, they rank 23rd on offense, having seen the league's second biggest drop in 3-point percentage. No team has taken a greater percentage of their 3-point attempts from the corners, but the Jazz rank 26th in corner 3-point percentage (33 percent), having shot better from above the break (34 percent).
The Jazz had the No. 1 defense in the league last season, and after Rudy Gobert's return from injury in mid-January, they allowed 3.9 fewer points per 100 possessions than any other team (which was kind of ridiculous).
The Jazz have suffered similar drop-offs in their defense with the Gobert both on and off the floor. With Gobert on the floor, they've allowed 103.0 points per 100 possessions, 5.6 fewer than the league average (108.6). That's very good, but with Kia Defensive Player of the Year on the floor last season, the Jazz allowed 10.3 fewer points per 100 possessions than the league average.
With Gobert off the floor, the Jazz have been worse than the league average defensively, allowing 109.7 points per 100 possessions. Last season, they allowed 3.2 fewer points per 100 possessions than the league average with Gobert off the floor.
The Jazz haven't rebounded as well as they did last season and they've also seen a drop in opponent turnover rate. But where the Jazz defense has seen the biggest drop-off is in their ability to defend shots inside the arc. Last season, the Jazz ranked 4th in opponent 2-point percentage (48.8 percent). This season, they rank 20th (52.6 percent)
With Gobert protecting the rim and aggressive defense on the perimeter, the Jazz rank third in the percentage of their opponents shots that come from between the restricted area and the 3-point line (37 percent). That's good, because those are the most inefficient shots on the floor.
But Jazz opponents have shot 43 percent on those shots, the fourth highest mark in the league. Last season, Utah opponents shot less than 39 percent, the league's fifth lowest mark, between the restricted area and the 3-point line.
At 43 percent, the Jazz are still allowing just 0.9 points per shot on those attempts. But the little things add up. If Jazz opponents were shooting the same percentage on those in-between shots as they did last season, the Jazz would rank fifth or sixth defensively instead of ranking 12th.
The Jazz also aren't have protected the rim as well as they did last season, when opponents shot 55 percent and 53 percent at the rim when Gobert and Derrick Favors were there to protect it, respectively. This season, those numbers are 59 percent and 56 percent.
While the Jazz certainly have to get better offensively to compete with the best teams in the West, if they're going to be the team many expected them to be, they have to rank in the top three defensively.
There is reason for optimism. Through Tuesday, when you take opponent strength, game location, and rest days into account, the Jazz had played the league's second-toughest schedule. Nineteen of their first 21 games were against teams that are currently over .500 and they've played just four games (three against Memphis and one against Miami) against the other nine teams that rank in the bottom 10 offensively.
The Jazz have played the most road games in the league (16), and they just got done with a brutal, three-week stretch in which they played 10 of 12 games away from home, making two different trips to the East coast.
When asked about his team's defense last week, Jazz coach Quin Snyder alluded to the schedule and a lack of practice time.
"You can have four guys that are on the same page, but if one guy's not, you can have a breakdown," Snyder said. "Our execution is something that we want to see improve. A lot of that is both focus and practice. For us, we've always been a team that works hard in practice. And when you can't practice, you have to do it through film, you have to do it from game to game. And every game's different."
The Jazz celebrated their return home with a 34-point win over San Antonio on Tuesday, one of the Spurs' worst offensive games of the season. Thursday's game on TNT, with the Rockets' seventh-ranked offense in town, is another chance for the Jazz to prove that they can defend as well as they did last season.
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