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Problem solved? Utah's perimeter defense takes step forward in season-opening win

Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson (00) floats up a shot over Oklahoma City Thunder forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (50) as the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder open the 2021-22 season at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021.

Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson (00) floats up a shot over Oklahoma City Thunder forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (50) as the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder open the 2021-22 season at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY β€” You could say Donovan Mitchell didn't have the strongest start to the season.

In the first quarter, Mitchell had 0 points, dribbled the ball off his leg that resulted in a turnover, and failed to secure a rebound that was falling out of bounds.

But here's the thing: The Jazz were still up double digits for most of the final minutes of the quarter.

There's likely going to be a lot of nitpicking this season because the Jazz are going to win a lot of games, even when they aren't at their best.

Wednesday's season opener was the first of such cases.

The Jazz struggled from 3-point range for the majority of the night, had some uncharacteristic turnovers and were a bit too unselfish. Yet, the game was never really in doubt as Utah rolled to a 107-86 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder to start the season.

"Shots are shots, they'll fall," Mitchell said. "I'm not too worried about that."

They eventually did β€” Mitchell scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half β€” but what was much more pressing for the Jazz as they began the season was how they defended on the perimeter.

After last season's playoff collapse, Mitchell wanted to make an early statement that teams won't have it so easy driving on the Jazz this season. Yes, Rudy Gobert will clean up a lot of mistakes, but Utah as a collective unit wants to use that as a luxury, not as a necessity.

Utah's defensive rating was an 89.5 on Wednesday, and that wasn't all due to Gobert (well, at least in the third quarter). The All-Star center may be the best judge on how the teammates in front of him are holding up. If they're good, his job gets awfully easy. If they aren't, he's forced to cover a lot of space.

"When you are not being good, it happens once, twice, three times," Gobert said.

That's what happened in last year's playoff loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. The LA guards broke the paint, Gobert came to help and they'd kick it out for open 3s; it happened over and over and over again, which forced Gobert to defend two places at once. Not even a three-time Defensive Player of the Year can do that.

But things felt different Wednesday, especially in the second half. If a player got beat, Gobert said there was an extra urgency to not let it happen again. There was more effort in fighting through screens and staying with ball handers. While that urgency didn't always mean perfection on the defensive end, effort has a way of leading to positive results.

"I think that's the mark of a great team," Gobert said.

This is the point where you can ask, "Well, wasn't it just the Thunder?"

Yes, Oklahoma City is going to be one of the worst clubs in the league; heck, they want to be. They haven't collected a horde of draft picks because they think they are on the cusp of contention. That said, Oklahoma City's perimeter players have cooked Utah in the past.

Last season, Lu Dort hung 42 points on the Jazz. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander causes headaches for every team, and rookie Josh Giddey has gotten tips from fellow Australian Joe Ingles on how to be crafty on his drives to the basket.

They're all big guards that can cause a lot of trouble for teams when they get in the paint. The Jazz at least limited that on Wednesday. Were they perfect? No, but a stronger desire is a good starting point.

Utah's built a top defense by surrounding Gobert with mostly sub-par defenders. That strategy has worked in the regular season but has proved to be Utah's downfall in the playoffs. On Wednesday, the Jazz showed they were serious about solving that problem.

"Just being able to guard, just keeping them in front, no hero play," Mitchell said. "I don't need to get a steal, but just gotta keep the man in front."

By doing that, the Jazz's relatively slow start on offense wasn't much of an issue.

Shooting 30% from 3-point range on 47 attempts and having some reluctance to shoot the first open look (which usually crashed a possession) didn't have much of an effect on the game, especially when the team didn't have to outscore the Thunder.

Still, the Jazz eventually got theirs, too.

Bojan Bogdanovic shook off a slow start to lead the Jazz with 22 points, Jordan Clarkson had 18 points off the bench and Gobert had 16 points and 21 rebounds.

The greatest offensive start? Hardly.

Good enough? Certainly.

And it came with the added bonus of a promising defensive effort. The question moving forward: Can they keep that up?

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