LOS ANGELES — The second unit has won over hearts, made headlines and turned into an energy-producing strength during the Utah Jazz's winning surge.
The team's better-known offensive talents — Deron Williams, Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and C.J. Miles — have had strong outings.
And everybody in the NBA knows about this club's comeback powers, including the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and the other Staples Center occupants, the Clippers, whom the Jazz face this afternoon at 1:30.
But, get this: Some on the Jazz aren't even aware of their own fortitude in one area in which they're excelling.
Utah's defense has held opponents to NBA-low shooting percentages for field goals (.426) and 3-pointers (.287).
Along with those league-leading marks, the Jazz have limited nine of their last 10 foes to under 100 points.
"I didn't even know about it," Jefferson said.
Neither did Raja Bell and Jazz coach Jerry Sloan wasn't aware of the last part.
But it's true — even if nobody asked about it realized how well the Jazz are doing in those defensive categories. Ignorance is bliss, right?
"We're just playing defense, man," Jefferson said. "Making guys shoot contested shots ... trusting each other, helping."
That proved to be the difference in Friday's thrilling come-from-behind win over the Lakers. It was help defense — of the double-team variety — that led to the Jazz putting the clamps down on the Lakers after Kobe Bryant's 14-point explosion, which Jefferson referred to as a "video game moment."
L.A. didn't score a point in the final 2:32 — while Utah reeled off an 11-0 run — after Sloan changed the defensive strategy, forcing any Laker but Bryant to shoot at the end of the game.
It was a defensive gamble — one that Sloan recalled has failed in the past against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, and even last spring in the playoffs against the same Lakers.
"You have to give up something," Sloan said. "They missed shots. That's what you feel good about."
But the Jazz defense didn't just shine in those final moments. Utah gave up 33 points in the first quarter, then held L.A. to only 63 points in the final three.
The potent Lakers shot only 41.8 percent overall, including 19 percent when Utah charged back in the second quarter. L.A. was also held 15.5 points below the league-leading average of 115.5 ppg they had coming in. And Bryant's bunch shot a season-low 26.7 percent from 3-point land.
Sloan credited improved intensity for the turnaround — something that aptly applies across the board during the Jazz's defensive push the past 10 games.
"I don't know what to attribute that to," Bell said, "other than hard work."
"Just effort," Williams added. "We have great principles."
Williams smiled and said, "We have a lot of principles."
Without detailing the defensive checklist, Williams provided a clue in this response: "As long as we go out and put the effort out and help each other out, we should hold teams to a pretty good field-goal percentage and then hold them under 100."
Williams wasn't the only one who mentioned the principles of hard work, the team concept and communication.
"You've got to have trust to know that if you go help, your teammate (is) going to help you," Jefferson said. "And I think that's what's been getting us over the edge the last couple of games, just helping each other and trusting each other."
Williams credited the feisty second unit of Earl Watson, Ronnie Price, Miles, Francisco Elson and Kyrylo Fesenko for giving the Jazz a consistent boost off the bench.
That has helped Utah bounce back from numerous lackadaisical starts, including the early stumble Friday that resulted in an early 19-point Laker lead.
"Their intensity and energy is contagious," Williams said. "It rubs off on everybody."
Williams said Jazz starters improved on their help defense and more closely adhered to their defensive principles after getting a reminder from their reserves.
"The games when we help each other out and we rotate right and go by our defensive principles we're fine," he said. "It's the games that we don't, that we have a little bit of a problem."
Sloan admitted it is "kind of unusual" for Utah to be so good on field-goal defense considering the Jazz aren't a shot-blocking team.
"Guys are trying to help each other," he said, "trying to draw offensive fouls ... all that goes hand in hand."
And winning, not just by coincidence, tends to accompany all of that.
"It's sometimes a good evaluator for your team," he said.
"That's a good recipe for success," Bell added. "If you can hold teams under 100 in this league, generally speaking you have a good chance to win.
"I think we've been doing a lot better job of helping each other," he continued. "When there's a breakdown, guys (are) covering for each other and that's the kind of spirit you have to have defensively."
It has benefited, Sloan said, to have an infusion of defensive-minded veterans like Bell, Elson and Watson into the rotation.
"They've helped us," Sloan said. " ... Those guys have all had good grades on what we're trying to do."15 comments on this story
They'll all get a second crack at shutting down one of the five opponents who've surpassed the century mark today. The Jazz edged the Clippers, 109-107 on Nov. 6. That double-overtime game jump-started Utah's rallying efforts on the scoreboard and the defensive end.
Second to none
Opponents FG%: .426 (1st)
Opponents 3PT%: .287 (1st)
Opponents scoring: 97.9 (11th)Defensive dandies
(Jazz have held 9 of their last 10 opponents under 100 points. Utah has gone 8-2 in the stretch while holding foes to 93.2 ppg.)
Jazz 104, Magic 94
Jazz 90, Hawks 86
Jazz 96, Bobcats 95
Thunder 115, Jazz 108
Jazz 98, Nets 88
Spurs 94, Jazz 82
Jazz 103, Blazers 94
Jazz 94, Kings 83
Jazz 105, Hornets 87
Jazz 102, Lakers 96