SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Coach Tyrone Corbin has got to love what is coming out of the mouths of his Utah Jazz players lately.
After spending all offseason developing a new philosophy with his coaching staff and then implementing the system in training camp and emphasizing its importance over and over and over some more, it's got to be music to Corbin's ears to hear his guys extol the virtues of playing hard-nosed defense.
They have been doing that a lot lately, and they're not just giving lip service to kiss up to the guy who distributes playing time.
You can probably guess what Corbin likes even better than hearing about defense.
Bingo — watching his players play it.
And because they have defended aggressively, energetically and consistently as of late, the Jazz are seeing success on the scoreboard. Four straight wins, five of six and seven of 10.
"Defense plays a big part in our success," Jazz center Al Jefferson said.
"We know we can come out there and play tough defense and try to win," Jazz big Derrick Favors said.
"We are just playing hard," Jazz guard Jamaal Tinsley added. "Guys are taking charge of competing on the defensive end. Guards are doing their job. Bigs are doing their job. And we are just trying to stop their best scorer from scoring."
Tuesday's win over the Western Conference-leading Oklahoma City Thunder was just the latest example of what happens when the Jazz buckle down on the defensive end.
Utah absolutely dominated the Thunder inside, limiting them to just 20 points in the paint (compared to 50 for the Jazz). OKC coach Scott Brooks credited Corbin's crew for playing physical basketball, which also led to the visitors making 20 turnovers — a game after the Jazz forced the Lakers into 24 turnovers in that impressive road win.
"The rotations are definitely better," Jazz point guard Devin Harris said. "Guys are communicating more. All those things I think kind of flow into it."
The Jazz are doing a better job of asserting themselves into disrupting pick-and-rolls lately, according to Corbin. That has been a huge weakness on defense for some time.
The bigs are more effectively helping the wings, and vice-versa.
Teammates are trusting each other more, and learning how to work together better.
They're playing harder and smarter, with success breeding even more confidence and chaos.
"For the most part," Corbin said, "guys are learning and they're counting on each other and they're trusting the game plan."
It's paying off, as it has all season. Utah's 97-90 win over its Northwest Division leader was the 25th time the Jazz have held an opponent under 100 points, and they've won a whopping 20 of those defensive gems.
Utah has held three straight opponents under 100, and the Timberwolves needed overtime to reach the century mark in the first contest — a 111-105 Jazz victory — of this current four-game winning streak.
"We're more committed on the defensive end as a unit as opposed to earlier," Harris admitted.
So why play more aggressively and up the defensive effort now?
"When we do those things we win, so it's just real simple," Harris said. "Guys (were) tired of losing."
Despite progress, the Jazz have plenty of room for improvement. They are in the top seven for blocks and steals as a team, but over the course of the season they've been outscored (98.2-97.7) and outshot (45.8 percent to 45.5 percent).
And only a week ago, Phoenix torched the Jazz for 120 points.
"Some nights, teams are going to make shots on you," Corbin admitted. "Phoenix, we did a relatively decent job."
The Suns, however, hit nine 3-pointers and stretched Utah's defense out, which, Corbin said, can leave the Jazz "vulnerable."
Utah, by the way, gave up 103 to the Kings, their opponent Thursday night, the last time they visited Jimmer Fredette's new home three weeks ago.
"Sacramento, they have some talent on their team," Jazz swingman Gordon Hayward said. "It's going to be another team effort and challenge to stop them defensively."
While Millsap has been on a stealing spree (including eight vs. Minnesota), Hayward and C.J. Miles are a couple of players whose defensive games have received the most attention recently. They hounded Kobe Bryant into a career-worst 3-for-20 shooting night, and the pair limited Kevin Durant to 18 points on 6-for-22 shooting on Tuesday.
"C.J. has done a tremendous job," Hayward said. "And I think the biggest thing, we've been able to have help from our other teammates when they drive. It's not just us guarding them. It's Paul stepping over or Al stepping over or Derrick stepping over and shutting them off. It kind of forces them to take tough jump shots and we're there to contest. It's a team defense."
Ah, those sweet words a coach loves to hear again.
Corbin emphasized that the improved defense leads to a better offense as well because the Jazz get more transition baskets, play in rhythm and feel better about themselves, which translates to confident playmaking.
Hayward senses a "renewed effort and a renewed focus" on the defensive end.
"I think we realize that we're getting down to crunch time," Hayward said. "Every game matters, especially in the West trying to make the playoffs."
And the proof of success is in the standings, where the Jazz (24-22) are only a half-game out of a playoff spot. It's no secret what they need to continue to do well and work on to leap into the top eight and get back into the postseason after a year out.2 comments on this story
"Any time we can play well defensively," Hayward added, "that's when we're at our best."