By John Coon, The Sports Xchange
SALT LAKE CITY — It could take other NBA teams a while to figure out how to counteract the Utah Jazz defense. Utah is already staking a claim as the league’s best defensive team just a few games into the season.
Dallas learned this lesson the hard way on Wednesday night. The Mavericks almost trailed from wire-to-wire in a 97-81 loss to the Jazz. For the third time in five games, Utah held their opponent under 90 points.
The Jazz never really let Dallas mount a serious threat over four quarters. After briefly taking a one-point lead in the second quarter, the Mavericks quickly fell behind again and never surged back in front. Utah kept Dallas from ever sustaining a rhythm on offense.
“That’s what we want to be,” center Rudy Gobert said. “That’s the identity of the team. We’ve got to be consistent. We’re not going to make shots every night, but we’re going to play defense every night and if we do that we’re going to be able to be in every game.”
George Hill scored 25 points and Rodney Hood added 22 to keep the Jazz (3-2) unbeaten at home. Joe Johnson chipped in 13 points and Gobert totaled 12 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots.
Utah proved equally dominant on the offensive end, shooting 48 percent (12-of-25) from the perimeter. The Jazz overcame a sluggish first-quarter start and gained energy from strong defensive play, which opened up the basket for them on the other end.
“We’re a good defensive team,” Hill said. “We’re big, we’re athletic and we got a lot of smart guys in different positions. It’s all mental. We’re going to be as good we can be mentally when everyone locks in, knows their part and knows their role. We feed off each other.”
Harrison Barnes scored 14 points to lead Dallas while Deron Williams and Wesley Matthews added 12 apiece. The Mavericks (0-4) remained winless despite Dirk Nowitzki returning after a two-game absence.
Utah held the Mavericks to just 27 percent shooting (7-of-26) from the perimeter and 43 percent shooting (33-of-77) from the field.
“We don’t like to lose any games,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “But this is a tough schedule and we got to play better. I’ve got to do a better job of getting our guys ready. That’s pretty obvious.”
Neither team started well on offense. The Jazz shot just 25 percent (6-of-24) from the floor in the first quarter. The Mavericks weren’t much better, knocking down only 33.3 percent (6-of-18) of their shot attempts.
Utah still led the entire quarter. Dallas did not take its first lead until Seth Curry’s jumper made it 16-15 early in the second quarter.
The Jazz sprinted back in front on Shelvin Mack’s jumper a few possessions later and took control with a 12-2 run. Derrick Favors provided the initial spark on a go-ahead dunk. Hill fueled the run with a trio of baskets. Then Hill and Dante Exum capped the run with back-to-back layups, giving Utah a 35-25 lead with 3:04 left before halftime.
Dallas twice cut the lead to five, the first time on back-to-back baskets from Nowitzki and the second time on a 3-pointer from Deron Williams. The Jazz answered each time with a long-distance basket and took a 41-33 lead into the locker room when Hill knocked down a 3-pointer on a half-court heave.
Utah carried that offensive momentum deep into the third quarter. Hood and Exum buried 3-pointers on three consecutive possessions to help the Jazz carve out a 64-44 lead with 3:04 left in the quarter.
Jazz coach Quin Snyder said he has asked Hill to take on a bigger scoring load in Gordon Hayward’s absence. Snyder is pleased with how Hill has responded.
“We had a high opinion of George, that’s why we traded for him,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said. “That’s the essence of who he is. He’s just going to do is asked of him and what he thinks that he needs to do to help us win games. That’s what he’s done.”
The Mavericks didn’t throw in the towel. Dallas ripped off a 19-2 run over the next four minutes and cut it to a one-possession game when J.J. Barea’s jumper trimmed Utah’s lead to 66-63 a minute into the fourth quarter.
Hill didn’t let it get closer. He buried a 3-pointer out of a timeout to give the Jazz a bigger cushion. Utah continued to build on it with more baskets from distance. Hill hit a jumper and then Joe Ingles and Joe Johnson followed with back-to-back 3-pointers to put the Jazz up 81-69 with 6:37 remaining.
“We weren’t in the game, really from the start,” center Andrew Bogut said. “Whatever it was, we were kind of chasing our tails from the start. Our bench did a great job of getting us back in the game. Made a run. We just couldn’t sustain it.”