Utah Jazz emerge as the Western Conference’s dark horse

While the successes of the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs have been well documented, the team that could pose the biggest threat to the Golden State Warriors is rarely mentioned. The Utah Jazz, quietly amassing a 41-24 record, are built for each of the West’s top teams.

Quin Snyder’s team lacks the commensurate name recognition, but it offers one critical component that no one else does: lockdown defense. In a league where 130-116 final scores are commonplace, the Jazz yield just 96.2 PPG to their opponents. To put that in perspective, Golden State–ranked 14th for points allowed–currently surrender 105.3 PPG.

The Jazz, who lead the league in defense, are allowing nearly 10 points less per game than the Warriors. And even without star power, the roster has been assembled with just enough in all the right places.

Rudy Gobert anchors the defense, and he is in the top two for Defensive Player of the Year along with Kawhi Leonard. Gordon Hayward leads the team in scoring and represented the Jazz at the All-Star Game this season. Outside of those two, Snyder relies on a cast of role players, from the ageless Joe Johnson coming off the bench to point guard George Hill seeking a big contract of his own.

In order to compete, the Jazz will need to defend with ferocity. Recent games against the Washington Wizards and Portland Trail Blazers provide solid evidence that such a task is possible in the playoffs. Utah limited Washington and Portland to 92 and 88 points, respectively, which is a far cry from their average. The Wizards, for example, have averaged 127 PPG in their last two contests.

“Yeah, they’re a really good defensive team,” said James Harden, arguably the favorite for MVP. The Jazz proved its offensive capabilities in the win too, outlasting the Rockets.

The Jazz recently held the New Orleans Pelicans to 83 points–which is a three-quarter total for many teams in the league. In many ways, defense is all about effort. The Jazz, unlike many of their counterparts, possess the will to go out and stop the other team.

"I feel like there are a few games where maybe we don't have as much energy and as much focus," Gobert said. "We have to be focused every night and bring it every night. When we do it, it's hard to score on us."

"We've worked at it and you start to see some compounding of the investment that you make over a period of a couple years…start to take hold a little bit,” added Snyder.