SALT LAKE CITY - Stingy defense is taking Utah to places no one expected the Jazz to reach earlier in the season.
The Jazz enter Tuesday's clash with the Atlanta Hawks riding a nine-game winning streak. Utah has won 21 of 23 overall to move into fifth place in the Western Conference standings, and there's no sign of that momentum grinding to a halt any time soon.
One reason behind the surge is a defense that's absolutely crushing opponents. In the last nine games, the Jazz have allowed an average of 89.3 points and held opponents to 40.2 percent shooting. They are outrebounding teams 49.2 to 38.8 per game.
Rudy Gobert is a catalyst in the elite defensive numbers. He has posted three straight games with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds and is averaging 19.3 points on 68.5 percent shooting, 13.7 rebounds and 2.4 blocks during the nine-game winning streak.
Jazz coach Quin Snyder said there's no question in his mind that Gobert is the best defensive player in the league right now.
"It's an empirical fact," Snyder said after Utah's 103-97 win over Sacramento on Saturday. "Empirical from the standpoint that, if you look at every number, he's dominant. Like, not just good. He has been dominant."
There's some question whether Gobert could earn NBA Defensive Player of the Year honors at season's end, simply because he has missed 26 games with knee injuries. But if his impact on the Jazz defense is looked at, Gobert feels like he has the best case to win the award.
His defensive real plus-minus rating is a league-best 5.52 through only 44 games.
"I don't like to make my own case, but there's nobody that impacts the game defensively like I do in the whole world," Gobert said. "I watch other games and I don't see anyone."
The Hawks (20-50) are the latest team tasked with figuring out how to survive and overcome Gobert and Utah's defense.
Salt Lake City is the second stop in a six-game road trip for the Hawks. Atlanta kicked it off in Milwaukee on Saturday, where the Hawks fell 122-117 to the Bucks.
Milwaukee lost despite getting 38 points from Taurean Prince for the second time in four games. Prince was 13 of 26 from the field, collected eight rebounds and also had two blocks.
The Hawks made a late rally against the Bucks but couldn't recover when Dennis Schroder picked up his sixth foul -- and a technical foul -- with 2:46 left.
"Just giving up points when it's that close -- when it's that tight -- it's hard," Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer told reporters after the game. "It's a learning experience for all of us."
The Hawks have dropped six straight games and seven of eight since the beginning of March. Porous defense is the primary culprit.
In its last 12 games, Atlanta has allowed 115.7 points per game. The Hawks have struggled the most in the third quarter. In its last five games, Atlanta has surrendered an average of 36.2 points in the third quarter.
The Hawks enjoyed one of their few positive moments of a tough season in their last meeting with the Jazz. Atlanta beat Utah 104-90 on Jan. 22 behind 20 points from Schroder and 17 points from Prince.
This game will mark the 100th meeting between the Jazz and the Hawks.