We’ve reached the All-Star break, 53 games into the season, and I’m pretty happy with the progress that we’ve made.

What I like most about our team’s growth this year is the development on the defensive end, especially recently. We’ve done a really good job defending teams, to the point where — even if we’re not doing well offensively — we’re still able to stay in the game because of our defense.

Los Angeles Lakers v Utah Jazz

When we played the Bulls in Chicago last month, we were rolling and hitting on all cylinders. I don’t know if we would have lost to anybody in the league that night. We played extremely hard and well on both ends of the court. It started defensively for us. We didn’t give them any openings. Rudy Gobert was a beast. He had 14 boards, five blocks and a couple steals. On the offensive end, we were cutting hard, passing the ball well. Everything was really forceful and sharp, and we were able to knock down some shots, too.

Since that game, with a few exceptions, we’ve been playing really well defensively.

As long as you’re strong defensively, you stay in games and give yourselves a chance to win. The progress we’ve made from the beginning of the season until now is encouraging. There are a lot of things that go into improving on that end of the floor the way we have. We’ve experienced more as a team and as each unit. Along with that are two facts: We’re communicating better, and we’re trusting each other more now that we have that experience.

One of the biggest factors in our improvement on defense is Rudy. He has been getting more playing time, and he’s coming into his own on the defensive end.

It starts with his height, which is something he’s blessed with and you can’t teach. His standing reach is something crazy like 9’7″. There’s nobody in the league that can match that physically. But it’s been really impressive how rapidly he’s improved. It seems like he has that knack on defense. I can remember, even in the limited minutes that he got last season, he always seemed to come in and get a pretty nice block, or he’d come over and provide help on the weak side and make things really difficult. Naturally, he has pretty good defensive instincts. Those will get even better over time.

Utah Jazz v Chicago Bulls

Having somebody like that is extremely important if you want to be a good defensive team. It allows you to gamble a little more as a defender, and be more aggressive on the ball and in passing lanes. You know that if you don’t get the steal or get beat, there’s somebody back there to make every shot they take in the paint really difficult. Even if Rudy doesn’t block the shot, he still almost always alters the shot. His presence in there forces the other team’s offense to make an extra pass out of the post after the drive. Once you do that, it becomes a lot more difficult to score.

Driving to the basket is a big part of getting offense in this league. Against certain teams, if you can penetrate and go to the hole, that’s a dunk, a layup or an easy short jump shot. But against other teams with players who protect the rim — like Dallas with Tyson Chandler, Golden State with Andrew Bogut and Indiana with Roy Hibbert — you have to make a quick, tough floater. Those are difficult shots to shoot and even harder to make. It’s especially difficult with the verticality rule they have now. As a shooter, you have to basically absorb contact and finish through the contact without the benefit of a foul call. It’s a huge weapon for the teams that have players down low who can contest drives and alter shots.

Rudy has done a tremendous job of being that guy for us. The more time he gets out there on the court, the better he’ll be.

After the All-Star break, I’d really like to see us continue to play well defensively and make it difficult on our opponents. As long as we do that, we’ll give ourselves a chance to win games.

THE REALITY OF THE WEST

We’ve learned a lot this year and we’ve taken our lumps.

The West is so competitive. Look at each team that’s in playoff position right now, one through eight. You could legitimately see them making the Western Conference Finals, and maybe even winning the West and reaching the Finals. Even the nine and 10 are really good teams.

San Antonio is seventh, and they’re the World Champs. When they have everybody healthy, they’re not really seventh place. Oklahoma City is ninth right now, and they’re not really a team that should be on the outside, or even an eighth seed type team. They’re down there because they’ve had so many injuries. So pretty much every single team that you’re going to play against in the West is going to be a good team.

Utah Jazz v Portland Trail Blazers

We still go into each game believing that we can win the game. But as competitive as our conference is, we could play our best basketball and not necessarily come out with the victory. That’s the way it is in the Western Conference. You’ve got guys that are so good, sometimes they just make plays, and you end up on the wrong side of the win-loss column.

Of all the teams in the West, Golden State stands out right now above everybody, in my opinion. They’re extremely talented offensively, and they’ve managed to put together the number one defense in the league, too. So if you’re going to pick one team to win the West right now, to me that’s Golden State. But that could change several times before this season is over.

In the East, the team that stands out right now is clearly Atlanta. They’re playing ridiculously well. Nineteen straight wins was pretty incredible, and they’ve knocked off some great teams in the process by playing team basketball. They play so well together, and they’re so solid collectively.

A lot of people have been comparing them to the Spurs, especially with Coach Budenholzer there, and I can see the similarities. But they’re also two very different teams. The Spurs have some really incredible personnel — outstanding future Hall-of-Fame players.

You can’t just go and say, “We’re going to be the Spurs,” and do that. Talent matters. The Hawks have some great talent in their own right, including a couple former teammates of mine, Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll. What the Hawks do that reminds you of San Antonio is they minimize mistakes, and when you make a mistake, they capitalize on it.

That’s the sign of a good team.

Atlanta Hawks v Utah Jazz

The other East team that impressed me a lot was Toronto. We played them back in November, and again in early December, and they were solid all the way around. They lost DeMar DeRozan for a while, and he’s just now starting to get back, so I think they’re going to find their groove again.

Playing against teams that talented on a nightly basis makes all of us here in Utah want to make our way into that higher tier. For us, it’s just a matter of being better. Having continuity is extremely important. If you look at those teams at the top, most of them have been together for a while. They have guys with a lot of experience. We’re still a pretty young team, and experience means a lot in the NBA.

The only thing we can do right now is work to improve individually and collectively. We’re building something here. I’m excited to see where it goes.