From a statistical standpoint, the early returns when it comes to the Jazz's defense have to be considered encouraging. They're giving up 86.5 points on average through two games, down almost 13 points a game from last season.
The reality of the situation, however, is a little more complicated. The Jazz were largely content to trade baskets in the first half of their opening games against Denver and the Los Angeles Clippers before committing themselves in the third quarter.
"We have to try to put that together for 48 minutes," Carlos Boozer said, "which is exciting because we're 2-0 and we have so much to improve on."
"I couldn't say we play good," added Andrei Kirilenko, "but good stretches, bad stretches, good stretches, bad stretches."
Assistant coach Phil Johnson, who filled in Saturday with Jerry Sloan out sick, questioned the Jazz's defense in the first half against the Clippers. Deflections were few and far between for the Jazz, who keep count of them all season on a locker-room board.
But Johnson was happier with what he saw in the second half. The Jazz pulled away as the Clippers faded in the second game of a back-to-back set and closed the third quarter on a 15-0 run after switching to a zone defense.
Ronnie Brewer came up with a steal on the first possession after the Jazz changed to the zone. As the tired Clippers missed jumper after jumper, the Jazz took advantage in building their lead and holding the Clippers scoreless the final 4:55 of the quarter.
"I always been a huge fan of the zone defense because you don't need to be responsible for one guy," Kirilenko said. "You're always like responsible for the land you own, and all the five guys, if they communicate good, it's almost impossible to score."
Although they experimented with the zone during the preseason, the Jazz usually employ it more as a surprise coming out of timeouts than as a primary defensive strategy.
"We've done it since they've let us zone in the NBA," Johnson said. "We do change up, and so that helped us some during one stretch, just changing up, and helped us do a little better job."
Against the Nuggets, the Jazz also made their push during the third quarter, building a 14-point lead as Denver's Linas Kleiza and J.R. Smith missed a combined four three-pointers.
Entering Sunday, only the L.A. Lakers (84.0) and Houston (83.3) were allowing fewer points on average than the Jazz. That would represent a remarkable turnaround considering the Jazz gave up more points last season than any Sloan-coached team in 15 years.
To be sure, the Jazz have benefited from the absences of key players for Denver (Carmelo Anthony) and the Clippers (Baron Davis and Marcus Camby). They also were playing at home, where they went a league-best 37-4 last season.
The Jazz might as well have been different defensive teams home and away last season, giving up 94.6 points at home and 104.0 points on the road. They will get their first chance tonight against the Clippers to make up for last season's road failings.
For the Jazz to become a better road team, Johnson said the key was to play like they do at home, with fewer turnovers and greater second-half energy. To win on the road without Deron Williams (sprained left ankle) would be especially impressive.
"I've always thought it's inexperience with our team," Johnson said. "We really have a young team. We don't have a bunch of experienced guys, and I think that's really important on the road."
Notes: Sloan made the trip to Los Angeles for tonight's game, as did Deron Williams (sprained left ankle) and Matt Harpring (ankle infection). Neither Williams nor Harpring is expected to play, however. Jarron Collins (right elbow) sat out Saturday's game and is questionable for tonight.
Jazz at L.A. Clippers
At Staples Center
Tipoff: 8:30 p.m.
TV: FSN Utah
Radio: 1320 AM, 98.7 FM
Records: Jazz 2-0; Clippers 0-3
Last meeting: Jazz, 101-79 (Nov. 1)
Line: Jazz by 7
About the Jazz: Even with Deron Williams out, the Jazz were able to set a franchise record with only five turnovers in Saturday's victory over the Clippers. Look for the Clippers to turn up the pressure on defense. "We didn't do a good enough job being aggressive from a defensive standpoint," Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy said. "We let them be too relaxed with the basketball and they made some easy plays." . . . The Jazz were 1-1 on the road against the Clippers last season.
About the Clippers: Baron Davis is likely out tonight with the sore left hip that he suffered in Friday's loss to Denver. Dunleavy said Saturday that Davis wouldn't be re-evaluated for another three or four days. . . . Marcus Camby could return from a bruised heel to play against the Jazz. . . . With Davis out, former Jazz guard Jason Hart started for the Clippers, but was replaced by rookie Mike Taylor, who had 13 points and four assists.