The Utah Jazz are playing like a juggernaut. They've won eight straight games, and they have a better record (12-4) than any team that doesn't play in Los Angeles. Utah's offensive rating (111.6, per Cleaning The Glass, which filters out garbage time and heaves) ranks fourth in the league, and its defensive rating (105.8, per CTG) and net rating (plus-10.8) rank second.
The Jazz have a pair of All-Stars, but even their diehard fans would admit that Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert don't have the superstar cachet of LeBron James and Anthony Davis or Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. How exactly are they doing this?
One reason: Their players have been available. Utah is the only team in the NBA to have used the same starting lineup in every game. Of its top nine players, only Joe Ingles, who missed four games with right Achilles soreness, has missed any time at all. Second-year big Juwan Morgan is the only Jazz player who has had to sit out because of health and safety protocols. While this season has been chaotic and unpredictable, with many teams playing severely shorthanded, Utah has had a totally different experience.
Even the relatively lucky teams have had challenges that the Jazz have avoided. Limited practice time has made it difficult for competitors to build chemistry, but their only "new" rotation player is Derrick Favors, who spent eight-and-a-half seasons with the franchise before a one-year sojourn in New Orleans. "They're where we were three or four years ago," Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said on Saturday, adding that "the continuity is apparent right away, they all know each other so well, they execute their stuff beautifully."
If you loved the Warriors at the beginning of their run, you should watch Utah. On the opening possession that night, all five Jazz players touched the ball:
This is exactly what Kerr was talking about. Mitchell sets a ghost screen for Mike Conley, who hands it off to Bojan Bogdanovic, comes off a double screen and runs an empty side pick-and-roll. Gobert's roll sucks in the defense and a perfect touch pass from Bogdanovic finds Royce O'Neale wide open in the corner for the first of 20 3-pointers Utah would make in its 127-108 victory. (The final score didn't do the beating justice: The Jazz led 77-47 at halftime and by 40 points early in the fourth quarter.)
That set play is quintessential Quin Snyder. In late 2017, ESPN's Zach Lowe wrote about Utah's "advantage basketball," which he described as a "whirring, Euro-infused system of screens, cuts, and drives." Back then, though the Jazz were starting Ricky Rubio next to Favors and Gobert. Mitchell and O'Neale were rookies. They knew they weren't going to have pristine spacing, especially after the departure of Gordon Hayward, but the system allowed them to eke out an average offense in the regular season.
After consecutive five-game series losses to Houston in the playoffs, Utah traded for Conley, signed Bogdanovic and let Favors walk in an effort to fix its spacing issue and its overreliance on Mitchell. Last season was weird and uneven, even before it stopped, Bogdanovic had wrist surgery and they went without him to the bubble, where Conley's last-second 3 rimmed out in Game 7 of the first round. What we're seeing now is what Utah envisioned in the summer of 2019: "Advantage basketball" with four shooters, multiple playmakers and a rim-running center on the court at all times.
Kerr noted that this season's Jazz are "hunting 3s more quickly and more often." The numbers are ridiculous: A league-high 44.5 percent of their shots have come from 3-point range, per CTG, and they've made 41 percent of them, which ranks second to the Clippers. Utah is making 16.8 3s a game, the most in NBA history. On this winning streak, it has made an average of 19.3 a game and shot 43.7 percent from deep.
Conley, Mitchell, O'Neale, Ingles and Jordan Clarkson are shooting better than than 41 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s on the season. Bogdanovic and Georges Niang have joined that club on this streak. Sometimes it seems like anything Utah throws up will fall through the net.
But any team can increase its 3-point rate if it is determined to do so. The Chicago Bulls did that last season, and their offense was horrendous. Repeatedly, Snyder has said that the Jazz are not thinking about the volume of 3s they're taking or making. They're focused on their spacing and their passing, and they believe that they'll get good looks if they play their way. This started in the bubble -- without Bogdanovic, the coaching staff encouraged their remaining shooters to let it fly without hesitation -- and now they've run with it, in a literal sense.
Utah is just 23rd in pace, but that stat is misleading. The Jazz are first by a mile in transition scoring, per CTG, and they get the vast majority of their transition points off live rebounds.
If you miss a layup against Utah, there's a good chance you're about to give up a 3:
If you crash the boards and don't succeed, there's a good chance you're about to give up a 3:
And if you make one wrong move 75 feet from the basket, there's a good chance you're about to give up a 3:
This is a different kind of "advantage basketball." The Jazz are attacking before the defense gets set, and even if they can't find an open look right away, the tempo works in their favor. Here, they push the ball after a made basket against a young New Orleans Pelicans lineup, and two second-year players end up getting their wires crossed, simultaneously converging on Ingles in the corner:
During the streak, the Jazz have been incredible in the halfcourt, too, scoring 105.2 points per 100 possessions. (For context, Clippers have scored a league-best 104 per 100 this season.) It began with a 131-118 win against the Bucks, in which Utah went 25 for 53 from deep, exploiting a defense designed to protect the paint. Milwaukee had the league's best defensive rating in 2018-19 and 2019-20 despite giving up a ton of 3s, and this year's Pelicans adopted its philosophy. In two games against New Orleans last week, the Jazz shot a combined 38 for 86 from deep and had an offensive rating of 122.3.
Conley has taken 3.9 pull-up 3s a game and made 38.7 percent of them. Mitchell started slowly, but has caught fire lately, going 14 for 30 on pull-up 3s while Utah has been streaking. When they see drop coverage against a ball screen, they are not shy.
The Jazz burn teams that sag against off-ball screens the same way:
One way to bust a zone: Stand several feet behind the arc so a closeout requires the defender to cover more ground.
This works against traps, too:
Everybody knows Ingles has excellent court vision, and you're probably aware that Conley is more comfortable in the offense than he was at the beginning of last season. The Jazz are clicking, though, because the whole team is in rhythm and passing well. Mitchell has made great strides when it comes to playmaking for others:
O'Neale has a usage rate of 8.6 percent, the lowest of his career, but occasionally he'll make plays like this:
Utah is stingy on defense and dominant on the offensive glass, as it has been since Gobert became its starting center six years ago. Its halfcourt offense is a barrage of ball movement and player movement, as it has been since Snyder coached his first game a few months before that. The Jazz are still the Jazz, but they are supercharged. Before they annihilated his team, Kerr said they're capable of winning the title.
To do that, Utah will first have to get in the way of an L.A.-versus-L.A. conference finals, like Denver did last season. It will have to prove that its offense can stand up to elite playoff defense, particularly when opponents are switching everything in an effort to shut down all the pretty stuff.
If there is a reason for mild skepticism, it is shooting variance. Conley, Mitchell, O'Neale, Ingles and Clarkson are all shooting more 3s than ever, and all but Ingles are making a career-high percentage of them. (Ingles has twice shot better than his 42.6-percent mark in a season, but his 66.5 percent true shooting is a new high-water mark in overall efficiency.) Meanwhile, opponents can't make anything -- against the Jazz, teams are shooting 35.1 percent on wide-open 3s, defined by NBA.com as 3s in which the closest defender is six or more feet away. That's the fourth-worst mark in the league, and, it has been even worse (29.5 percent!) during the streak.
In this respect, Utah has been a bit lucky. But it has a net rating of plus-22.8 on this eight-game streak, per CTG, and seven of those wins were by double digits. A week before the run started in Milwaukee, Mitchell and Bogdanovic shot a combined 3 for 14 from deep against the Clippers. Previous iterations of the Jazz were not equipped to overcome an off night from Mitchell against an elite team, but this time they earned a 106-100 victory. Conley scored 33 points and made seven 3s.