SALT LAKE CITY — It appears Utah’s defensive evolution has taken a giant step forward since coming back from the NBA All-Star break.
Opponents are being greeted with a Jazz team that snags loose balls, alters shots and forces turnovers with high energy. This is a much different story than a year ago, when Utah was at or near the bottom of the NBA in virtually every major defensive category.
The results are also much different — starting with a 90-81 victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Monday night, where the Jazz forced a steady stream of turnovers and kept the Spurs’ motion offense out-of-sync for 48 minutes.
Utah has held its last two opponents to an average of 78.5 points per game. The Jazz feel like it is a good start — but only the first step in what they want to become defensively.
“We want to continue to grow,” Jazz guard Trey Burke said. “Coach Snyder holds us accountable every single day on defense. It’s something that he prioritizes at a high level. If we’re not doing it the way he wants us to do it, we hear his voice. It’s something we’re getting better at.”
Burke scored 23 points and forward Gordon Hayward added 18 to lead Utah. Forward Derrick Favors added 14 points and 10 rebounds and center Rudy Gobert chipped in 14 more boards, helping the Jazz (21-34) win the season series against the Spurs for the first time since the 2009-10 season.
Forward Tim Duncan scored 14 points and center Boris Diaw added 13 off the bench for San Antonio, which tied its season low for points in a game. The Spurs (34-22) turned the ball over 22 times, leading to 17 Jazz points.
“We are playing hard,” Duncan said. “We are out there — just not making shots and not making consistent plays. (We) just have to find a way to turn it. No other way about it.”
Utah started strong behind a dominant first-quarter defensive effort from Gobert. He collected nine rebounds and blocked a pair of shots in the quarter alone. Gobert also altered several other shots and generally created a miserable existence for the Spurs offense.
The Jazz took full advantage. Favors and Gobert threw down dunks on back-to-back possessions to help fuel an 8-0 run that gave Utah a 13-8 lead. Once in front, the Jazz kept forcing turnovers to keep their offense humming. San Antonio had six turnovers in the quarter, which led to eight Jazz points.
Utah eventually carved out a double-digit lead, going up 28-17 on Burke’s driving layup with 1:12 left in the quarter.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich credited Gobert for setting the game’s tone in the opening quarter.
“He’s a long drink of water,” Popovich said. “He changes shots; he blocks shots. He does a good job.”
San Antonio cut into the lead several times in the second quarter. The Spurs got within six points three different times — the final time on a reverse layup from Duncan that cut Utah’s lead to 41-35. Burke answered with a pair of jumpers to push the Jazz lead back to nine at 47-38.
Utah pushed the lead back to double digits early in the third quarter, going up 53-40 after Hayward converted a 3-point play and guard Joe Ingles followed with a 3-pointer. The Jazz led by as much as 14 points in the quarter, going up 71-57 on a basket from forward Trevor Booker.
“It’s one of those things where when the ball is moving and everybody is getting a touch and people aren’t playing selfishly that the game is easy,” Hayward said. “It’s simple, but it’s also fun and rewarding, especially with the guys we have. We have a lot of good team chemistry, so it’s good to see people make shots and people make plays.”
The Spurs came as close as 10 early in the fourth quarter after Duncan made a layup and forward Kwahi Leonard added a free throw to cut it to 79-69. Utah slammed the door shut. Favors made a layup and Hayward followed another off a blocked shot by Booker to push the lead to 84-69 with 4:15 left.
NOTES: As a sixth man this season, Jazz G Trey Burke is averaging 13.5 points, 3.3 assists and 2.6 rebounds. … Spurs G Danny Green is the only guard in the NBA averaging at least one steal and one block per game. Green averages 1.2 blocks and 1.4 steals per contest this season. … Before Monday, San Antonio had 37 games in which five or more players scored in double figures this season. … Utah F Gordon Hayward averaged 23.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists through his previous eight games before Monday night.
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