When the Utah Jazz left for a five-game road trip, Utah was coming off five wins in the last seven games. The Jazz was unable to keep their momentum going, losing all five games and then dropping their return game against San Antonio. That leaves Utah with a six-game losing streak, zapping all the confidence out of both the fans and players. he problem isn't that the Jazz has lost six games; teams go through slow stretches all the time. It isn't even that Utah lost to a lot of poor teams (including Washington, New Jersey, and Philadelphia during this trip). What is troublesome is these games have been highlighting what has been a problem all year for the Jazz, the inability to defend spot-up jumpers.
Utah is 29th in the NBA when it comes to points per possession allowed in spot-up situations, giving up 1.06 PPP on 41.7 percent shooting in 970 possessions (accounting for 20.4 percent of the Jazz's total possessions on defense).
The biggest problem that I have seen is with Utah's off-ball defense. The Jazz simply doesn't play disciplined team defense, often times helping too late, overhelping, showing help when it isn't needed or just being lazy on closeouts. This all leads to open jumpers for opponents.
Where the Jazz's poor discipline becomes obvious is when opponents run pick-and-rolls. Often, we see a poor hedge, forcing help to come and leading to open spot-up jumpers:
What you have happening here is Manu Ginobili coming off of a Tim Duncan screen. Al Jefferson, who is defending Duncan, shows hard with the hedge, but he reaches in instead of staying tall. This allows Ginobili to hit an open Duncan, who in turn feeds open Richard Jefferson, who knocks down a three pointer.
This is the problem right now with the Jazz's pick-and-roll defense right now: poor hedges. Jefferson's body is in the correct position here, but he makes himself small, taking away his ability to alter or bother a pass. This is the result:
Duncan has the ball in the paint, and this forces the rest of the Jazz defense to sink in and try to stop him from getting to the basket. This opens up things for the spot-up shooters, which is exactly what happens here.
A few bad hedges are enough to start messing with a defense. Teammates start anticipating a bad hedge, and then they start to send help when it isn't necessary:
Here, the Spurs run a pick and roll, and there is actually a good hedge from a Utah big man (Francisco Elson). Despite the good help, C.J. Miles still finds it necessary to sink in and help, even though the ballhandler is no threat to get to the lane because of the good hedge from Elson. The result is another open three-point shot.
This is another pick-and-roll that is well defended by the Jazz's big. Jefferson does a good job of showing quick then returning to his man to close any passing lane. Despite that, Andrei Kirilenko sinks down to help on the roll man, leaving his man open in the corner. Clearly, Kirilenko was anticipating that the roll man, in this case Brook Lopez, was going to come free, not trusting his teammate. Again, the result is an open three-pointer.
In addition to the poor pick-and-roll defense, the Jazz is just lazy and undisciplined on the defensive end with their help:
In this clip, Kobe Bryant attacks the basket, and he seems to be closed off. Despite that, Paul Millsap decides to sink in and try to help on defense. This leaves Pau Gasol open on the elbow. The ball gets kicked to him and he knocks down the jumper.
Here is another example of unnecessary help hurting the Jazz. In this case, Andray Blatche is driving to the basket using a behind-the-back dribble. Deron Williams gets caught peeking and sinking in, and that leaves John Wall for the catch-and-shoot jumper. Now, there is absolutely no need for Williams to be sinking down and helping on Blatche 30 feet away from the basket, going behind the back with a dribble. That just isn't smart, and it hurts the Jazz in this case.
As a coach, you can live with poor decisions every once in a while, but what you can't live with is poor effort. What really worried me about the Jazz's defense when I went back and watched through some tape is that a good amount of catch and shoot jumpers that Utah gave up were simply due to lack of effort:
Here, C.J. Miles has put himself in good help position, ready to cut off any drive to the lane but also close enough to his man where a close-out is manageable. However, when the pass to his man comes, he takes his time getting back to his man, and he is able to knock down the three. A close-out like that is just inexcusable in my opinion.
The Jazz is going to get back to their winning ways because Utah can be really good on the offensive end (and won earlier in the year with help defense just as bad), but if this team wants to make noise in the playoffs, players need to get their act together on the defensive end. There are a few new guys on this team, and that could be playing a part in the poor help defense, but we are halfway through the season. Those issues should be figured out by now.
Sebastian Pruiti is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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