Photo: Michael Ainsworth (AP)

Before the season started, the Utah Jazz were considered a lock to finish top four in the Western Conference, and many prognosticators even thought they could surpass the Rockets and finish second. Theoretically, Utah seemed likely to rip out of the gates because of continuity, some internal improvement from their best player in his second season, and the return of a stalwart defense that allowed the second-fewest points per possession last year. Why couldn’t the same group that finished last season on a 29-6 hot streak just run it back a year later?

Through 14 games, Utah has been mediocre as hell! They’re 7-7, good for tenth in the Western Conference. That could be worse, given that they have played the NBA’s sixth-hardest schedule, but reaching that level of mediocrity hasn’t been a pretty process. But what is genuinely concerning is the defense, which has slipped down to 20th in the league. Most of Utah’s offensive load-bearers are producing at roughly the same efficiency as they were last year, but this is still the sort of team that it was during its late-season renaissance a year ago: a back-of-the-pack scoring team that relies on its defensive system to smother opponents. This group is liable to have a terrible scoring night on any given night, and when that coincides with a substandard defensive effort it can make for a truly ugly result. That all happened on Wednesday, when they scored just 68 points in a 50-point loss to the Dallas Mavericks, a spunky lottery team that is nonetheless a lottery team.

Here are two lowlights for you to enjoy, one showing Rudy Gobert getting ball-faked to hell and another demonstrating Ricky Rubio’s embarrassing tentativeness:

Utah shot just 31 percent from the field on the night, coughed up 21 turnovers, and scored just 22 points in the second half. Rubio led the team with 11 points. Grayson Allen put up five fouls and four turnovers in some shockingly ghastly garbage time minutes. Everything, everything was bad and ugly. If Dallas hadn’t scored at all in the fourth quarter, they still would have won by 16 points.

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One game is never that big of a deal, and we’re still a week from Thanksgiving. But the Jazz defense looks markedly different so far. Quin Snyder’s defensive setup is a temple to Rudy Gobert’s 7-foot-9 wingspan and preternatural shot-blocking instincts. This year, Gobert is allowing opponents to shoot 59.6 percent inside six feet, which is up eight percent from last year. Gobert said recently that the NBA’s new rule changes are a big factor in the Jazz’s mediocrity thus far, which makes sense.

One of the NBA’s big new points of emphasis this year was freedom of movement, and officials are calling the game a lot tighter on the perimeter and around screens. A defender can’t get away with as much when guarding someone in space, which is beneficial for teams that want to win by scoring a shitload of points but requires a serious adjustment for teams like the Jazz who are built on defense.

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Gobert also said after last night’s loss that teams have figured out how the Jazz want to play defense and are attacking areas they think they can exploit:

“First of all, teams come here with the mindset of attacking of us,” Gobert said. “You can feel it. You can feel that ‘we know the Utah Jazz last year’ in their head and they come into the game and they try to be aggressive.

“They know what we’re trying to do defensively and they try to counter that by being even more aggressive on the perimeter and driving and kicking so it’s on us to go past that and just be the aggressor,” he added. “We’ve got to set the tone and when we start setting the tone defensively, things are going to go back to how they should be.”

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The Jazz will either get better or they won’t, but the Western Conference is so brutal this year that there won’t be much margin for error. Good thing a 50-point loss only counts once.