Jazz aim to keep winning with defense against 76ers
SALT LAKE CITY — Has Utah finally reclaimed its identity as one of the NBA’s elite defensive teams?
It feels that way as the Jazz head into Thursday’s matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers looking for their sixth win in the last seven home games. Utah has won three of its last four overall while showing a renewed defensive energy.
Five of the last nine Jazz opponents have failed to reach 100 points. Only two since the start of December have shot better than 40 percent from the perimeter against Utah.
In Utah’s 117-96 win over Portland on Christmas day, the Jazz (17-18) limited the Trail Blazers to 39 percent shooting and forced a dozen turnovers. They led by double digits almost the entire second half.
“Our mindset has changed over the last few games,” Jazz center Rudy Gobert said. “We want to play defense and we’re having fun playing defense. It changes the way we play.”
Gobert, of course, is leading the charge with his own elevated defensive play. The reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year notched a season-high seven blocked shots against the Trail Blazers. Gobert also registered his 29th double-double after totaling 18 points and 14 rebounds.
With Gobert anchoring the defense, the Jazz are finding their way on offense. They shot 55.4 percent from the field against the Trail Blazers and overcame a 0-of-8 start from 3-point range to make 13 of 21 from long distance in the final three quarters.
Jazz coach Quin Snyder said Gobert’s increased defensive energy has rubbed off on his teammates and vice versa.
“He’s such a focal point for us and we build around him defensively, but it requires everybody to do their job,” Snyder said. “He can’t be on an island out on the floor. Guys have to a good job on the ball and guys have to do a good job behind him.”
The 76ers are one team built to test the Jazz’ defensive progression.
Philadelphia (22-13) presents a tough matchup for Gobert in the form of center Joel Embiid. The Sixers also have a bevy of playmakers on the wing like Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons who are equipped to make Utah work overtime on both ends of the court.
Salt Lake City is the first stop in a four-game western road swing for Philadelphia. It is part of a five-game road trip overall that started with a 121-114 loss to Boston on Christmas day.
Embiid posted his NBA-best 30th double-double, scoring 34 points and collecting 16 rebounds. But the Sixers could not overcome 19 turnovers that led to 22 points for the Celtics.
“I look forward to watching us evolve,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown told the team website. “We will learn from this. We leave disappointed, but I think there’s lots you’re going to point to and say it was a hell of a job, and we lost to a team that’s very tough.”
Embiid’s continued progression is helping the Sixers evolve upward. In his third season, Embiid is averaging career highs across the board of 26.6 points, 13.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game.
This is the second meeting between the teams this season. Philadelphia won 113-107 on November 16 behind 28 points and seven assists from Butler. The Sixers overcame 31 points from Donovan Mitchell and 66 points in the paint from Utah.
Philadelphia swept the season series a year ago.