Especially since he's been able to move to the four (power forward position), he's been great defensively, provides another shot-blocker at the rim, a rim protector. —Gordon Hayward
SALT LAKE CITY — These days, it's a good time to be a Utah Jazz fan.
After all, heading into Tuesday night's game against the New York Knicks, the Jazz had won seven of nine games since the All-Star break and nine of their last 12 overall.
Over that impressive nine-game stretch, Utah's defense has been downright outstanding, allowing just one of nine opponents to score more than 88 points.
In their other eight games — seven of them victories, including wins over Western Conference playoff-bound foes Portland, San Antonio and Memphis — the Jazz gave up an average of only 81.5 points per game.
Not only has Utah's improved defensive performance been key to its recent resurgence, but so has the play of fifth-year power forward Derrick Favors, who has averaged 17.7 points and 8.8 rebounds a game — one of the best stretches of his career — since the All-Star break.
"He's been excellent for us," said Utah's leading scorer, small forward Gordon Hayward, who sat out Tuesday's game with a lower back strain after starting the team's first 62 games of the season. "Especially since he's been able to move to the four (power forward position), he's been great defensively, provides another shot-blocker at the rim, a rim protector.
"And then the way he's been (playing) in the fourth quarter, making shots, hitting that mid-range jump shot has really opened up the floor for all of us. When he's hitting that shot, we're really tough to guard because they have to respect that shot and it opens up the 3s, it opens up the drives, and he's been playing really well for us — really well."
It's much more than a coincidence that Favors and Utah's defense have flourished since center Enes Kanter, a solid scorer but sometimes disinterested defender, was traded to Oklahoma City just before the annual break.
"I think I've took on more of a scoring role since the All-Star break," Favors said. "Obviously we traded Enes and teams are scouting us a little differently. So I just took it upon myself to just be another offensive threat out there on the court. Basically I just want to continue to get better on the offensive end and continue to improve my game and my range."
RUDY, RUDY, RUDY: Much of the credit for Utah's vast defensive improvement has rightfully been given to 7-foot-1 center Rudy Gobert, whose insertion into the starting lineup after Kanter's departure has coincided with the Jazz's recent surge.
Gobert had four consecutive double-digit rebounding games on Utah's recent four-game road trip, accounting for a superb average of 16.5 boards per game as the Jazz went 3-1 — and were a last-gasp play away from going 4-0.
"It's fun to play with Rudy," Favors said. "He's a guy who, when you pressure your man on the perimeter, he's back there and he's got your back. He's a good shot-blocker, a great rebounder, and he does a lot of stuff that doesn't show up (in the box score).
"He sets good screens and, rolling to the paint and drawing a lot of attention, that gives guys a lot of open shots. And just being by the rim with his long arms, he gets a lot of offensive rebounds, so it's a lot of fun playing with him."
DETERMINED 'D': Hayward said he and his teammates' hard work on the defensive end is really starting to pay dividends.
"It's been a year-long process for us, and I think it's kinda starting to come together for us," he said. "It's one of the things that, since the All-Star break, we've really focused on making sure we're playing together on the defensive end. And I think that, for the most part, we're really doing that.
"We're really executing the game plans really well. Coach Q (Quin Snyder) and his staff have come up with great game plans for us, and we've executed them and been able to get some stops."
Favors said Utah's improved defensive play is merely a matter of "just communication — playing hard on the defensive end and playing together, basically just buying into Quin's system. He talks to us every day about it — rotations, communication, scouting reports, whatever — just going out there and playing hard."
Coach Snyder attributes it to nothing more than hard work.
"We've worked; we've worked from the very beginning," he said. "Obviously people point to Rudy, and Rudy's been great. But Rudy's played minutes the whole year. I think the key thing is the lineup. Rudy's minutes have increased some, but he's been on the court a lot when we weren't as good defensively. So I think he's gotten better.
"You look at Rudy's defense off the ball, even his shot-blocking, he's doing other things. His pick-and-roll defense is getting even better.
"Fav's playing with Rudy at the four, and he's an elite defender at the four and what he's been able to do is learn to guard more and more out on the perimeter and take advantage of his matchup with smaller guys, which we'll continue to see," Snyder said.
"And then Dante (Exum) has emerged at the point, where we have a guy that with his length at the point he's unique, and I think he makes Trey (Burke) better when Trey comes in. Everybody has raised each other's level. It's the same old formula, right — attention to detail, commitment and hard work. It's a pretty good formula."
LEARNING A VERY VALUABLE LESSON: Utah's one outlier during that strong nine-game stretch was an inexplicable loss on Feb. 25 to the lowly Lakers, who came into EnergySolutions Area and surprisingly knocked off the Jazz 100-97 on the heels of Utah's back-to-back wins over the Trail Blazers and Spurs.
"We talked about that game, we talked about it a lot before (a win at) Denver, just kinda where our mindset was," he said. "The Lakers have beaten some other people since then, too. They came together. ... I don't want to fixate on that (loss to the Lakers), but certainly there's something to be said for how you handle wins as much as how you handle losses.
"But yes we have ... we've talked about it and basically about being prepared. NBA teams can beat anyone on any given night, and that's the reality. Obviously New York struggled (Monday) night with Denver, but they could easily bounce back (Tuesday) and we might get their very best game.
" ... This is a tough game. Any time you come back from a long road trip, it's a trap game," Snyder said. "Everybody in the league talks about it all the time ... because you're still trying to adjust to the two-hour time change and a lot of those types of things."
ARE WE HAVING FUN YET?: Snyder admitted that while winning certainly beats the heck out of losing, there's no way he and his team are going to be satisfied with their recent run of success.
"Winning, you know, it's nice, just the positive vibe," he said. "You run into people and (they say) 'nice win' instead of 'tough loss.' But I don't want our team to get complacent, so sometimes it's even more work figuring how you want to push 'em, where a loss brings stuff to the surface that 'Hey, we need to be doing this better or that better.' I think it's an opportunity for us to manage that."
"It's always been fun to come to practice," Favors said, "but when you lose, it's kinda tough getting up that next morning and coming to practice. When you win, you want to come back to practice, you want to get some more work in, you want to get some more shots up and continue winning.
"Coach does a good job keeping us level-headed with it but, overall, we just need to work and continue to improve."
CAN'T LOOK PAST ANYBODY: In their loss to the Lakers a couple of weeks ago, the Jazz learned that, no matter how well they're playing or how poorly an opponent might seem to be playing, they can't overlook anybody on their schedule.
Not even the Knicks, arguably the league's worst team, who came to town with an NBA-worst 12-50 record.
"They're still NBA players over there, they're still NBA talent no matter who they put out on the court," Hayward said. "... We've seen no matter who it is they can be dangerous and we can lose. ... We have to make sure we play the right way."
Favors echoed those same sentiments.
"They're still an NBA team," he said. "They're going through a really tough season, but they've still got some good players over there. You can't just look at their record and take an off day. ... We've still got to come in and be focused and be ready to play."
HOME, SWEET HOME: Beginning with Tuesday's contest with the Knicks, the Jazz play five straight home games, and nine of their next 13 at EnergySolutions Arena.
"It's something where we need to take advantage of this stretch," Hayward said. "Playing in front of our home fans is definitely an advantage for us. They seem to always rally and give us support when we need it."
"That traveling's tough, man," Favors said of the team's recent four-game road trip. "We're glad to be back in front of our home crowd, and hopefully we can continue to come out and play the way we've been playing."
Snyder, though, wasn't so sure that a long home stand was completely beneficial toward his team's development.
"There's obvious benefits to being at home," he said. "But sometimes, I mean frankly, we've played better on the road a lot of times this year. I think there's less distractions. And this is a team that has needed (that) and it's been good (for) us to be in kind of an environment that pulls us together.
"Hopefully, we'll see the maturity of this group continue to evolve. ... It is good to be at home and, more than anything, we're every other day with back-to-backs mixed in for the next month, and I think being at home will help us hopefully from a fatigue standpoint, not having to travel."
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