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Deseret News
Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) shakes hands with Royce O'Neale (23) after pouring a bottle of water on him during a post game interview after beating the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 18, 2019.

SALT LAKE CITY — In a story that may live on in Utah Jazz lore for a long time, the team owned a record of just 19-28 at the 47-game mark of the 2017-2018 season before famously finishing the campaign with a 29-6 run and a trip to the second round of the playoffs.

The improvement came as the Jazz’s defense went from good to remarkable. Through the first 47 games of last season, Utah was 10th in the NBA in defensive rating, giving up 106.2 points per 100 defensive possessions. Over the final 35 contests of the regular season, the Jazz were by far the best defensive team in the league as they gave up just 98.5 points per 100 possessions (the next best team, the Philadelphia 76ers, had a defensive rating of 103.3 over the span).

The incredible finish made Utah the best defensive team in the league over the course of the season, as it edged out the Boston Celtics with a 102.9 defensive rating, 0.2 points better than the Celtics.

As the Jazz reached the 47-game mark of the 2018-2019 season on Friday night, the team has followed a somewhat similar script from a year ago. After finishing last season so well, expectations for this year were sky-high in October with some predicting Utah could finish as high as No. 2 in the Western Conference. But thanks to a slow defensive start and a tough schedule, the Jazz were just 20-21 at the halfway point of the season and out of the playoff picture.

Fast forward six games, and Utah is 26-21 at that notable 47-game checkpoint and was seventh in the Western Conference entering Saturday’s games, having reeled off six straight wins despite playing with no true point guards because of injury.

" I don’t think we overreacted, but I think we did react, and our guys have gotten better. "
Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder

There are a few factors that have contributed to the success, as Donovan Mitchell has been outstanding as the lead guard, the strength of opponent hasn’t been very good and the Jazz have played five of the six at home after an incredibly road-heavy start to the season.

Oh, and one other big deal: Utah has become elite on defense once again, and after an especially strong last six games, is knocking on the door of the top defensive rating in the NBA. This comes after being a surprisingly poor 18th through the first month of the season despite having brought basically the same team back from last year.

But over the last two months, Utah has been the best team in the league defensively with a rating of 102.6. For the season, the Jazz are now fourth-best in the NBA with a rating of 104.4. The subscription-based website Cleaning The Glass, which uses a complicated formula to remove “garbage time” from its calculations since blowouts can easily skew numbers, now has Utah as the best defensive team in the league over the course of the entire season.

Deseret News
Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) blocks a shot by Cleveland Cavaliers guard Alec Burks (10) during the first half of the game at the Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 18, 2019.

“I don’t think we overreacted, but I think we did react, and our guys have gotten better,” head coach Quin Snyder said.

The numbers have been particularly impressive during the Jazz's six-game winning streak, even if Utah has played some of the worst teams in the league over the stretch.

Since Jan. 9, the Jazz have an NBA-best defensive rating of 97.2, more than two points better than the second-place Milwaukee Bucks. Utah’s defense has been especially stingy in second halves over the last six games, as it has a defensive rating of 96.7, more than three points better than the second-place New York Knicks.

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The effort has allowed the Jazz to go on a winning streak despite the fact that they’ve had just the 18th-best offensive rating in the NBA since Jan. 9 (for the season, they have the 20th-best offensive rating in the league).

“We keep getting better,” reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert said. “I try to keep getting better. Everyone is working hard to get better. We just realized more and more that it’s our identity, and we’re starting to embrace it. When we start doing that, even on a bad shooting night, we’re going to be able to win some games.”