No Laughing Matter: Gobert Putting His Stamp on Jazz-Thunder Series

April 25th, 2018 | by Andrew John

Gene Sweeney Jr. via ESPN

It was a little more than a year ago when Russell Westbrook, now the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player, laughed off a reporter’s question about how to contain Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert.

The question was perhaps worded awkwardly because Gobert isn’t a scorer that necessarily needs to be “contained” on a nightly basis, but the snickering from Westbrook, and his “That’s funny” response came off as disrespectful nonetheless.

On Wednesday, though, Gobert has a chance to get the last laugh as the Jazz look to close out their opening round playoff series with Westbrook’s Oklahoma City Thunder. Utah leads the series 3-1 following a pair of commanding performances in Salt Lake City.

Wwhile much of the talk of the series has centered around the strong play of Jazz guards Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell, Gobert’s influence on the game and how his 7-foot-1 frame has been able to frustrate Westbrook at the rim has perhaps been the biggest key to Utah’s dominance.

Much has already been made of Gobert’s Defensive Player of the Year candidacy, centering on how the Jazz won 23 of 27 games from Jan. 24 to March 26, registering the league’s top defense, immediately after Gobert returned from his second knee injury of the season.

It’s also been noted that Utah, which had been left for dead with a record sinking as low as 19-28 prior to Gobert’s return, also held opponents to an NBA-low 42.6 percent from the field and collected an NBA-best 80.9 percent of possible defensive rebounds during that Jan. to March stretch with Gobert manning the middle, protecting the rim.

In the postseason, Gobert’s presence has not been mitigated. It’s perhaps been even more influential.

The Jazz are allowing 8.5 more points per 100 possessions with Gobert on the bench versus when he’s on the floor, which tops the 6.8 differential during the regular season. As a team, the Jazz are holding the Thunder to a lower field goal percentage (43.6) and offensive rating (102.3) than they did against teams in the regular season.

One major factor in all of that is how the Jazz have prevented Westbrook from getting clean looks at the basket from within 10 feet of the rim — his sweet spot.

OKC’s offense runs through Westbrook, who led the league in scoring a year ago, and in assists this season. He’s not much of an outside shooter, so his scoring is predicated upon getting past his defender and getting to the basket for highlight reel dunks of easy lay-ins. Factor in an elite rim protector and that ease of that game plan can go awry.

The Jazz may have made it a point to focus on Westbrook at the start of the series, as he’s one of the few players in the league who can carry a team on his back offensively. They’ve thrown multiple defenders at him, funneling him into the paint, where Gobert is often waiting.

As a result, Westbrook is shooting more shots from 3-10 feet and from 10-16 than he has in just about any postseason of his career—and his field goal percentage (36.7) is the worst playoff shooting of his career by far. He’s shooting just 20 percent on shots from 3-10 feet and 33.3 percent from 10-16 feet. Both are well below his regular season efficiency.

Gobert blocked one of Westbrook’s shots in Game 2, as he got past Rubio on the wing and tried to shoot over the top of the Jazz big man. A few possessions later, he drove passed him and dished to a teammate rather than try it again.

Gobert has averaged 15.3 points, 11 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game while converting on 68.8 percent of his field goal attempts. He’s had a presence on both sides of the ball, and had he been healthy during the regular season, perhaps the regular season series between the two teams would have been quite a bit different.

The Thunder led regular season series against the Jazz, 3-1, but Gobert missed the last two games — both losses — and Utah is now seeing the contrast with Gobert back in the lineup.

OKC recorded an offensive rating of 120.4 in those two games not having to face Gobert at the rim, and the Thunder made 47.9 percent of their shots from the field. It’s no surprise that OKC dominated both of those games.

Gobert’s presence has changed the way the Jazz play defense. With him controlling the paint, Mitchell and Rubio, and even Joe Ingles have had the freedom to pressure defenders more, and force them into spots where Gobert patrols.

It may be too late to for Westbrook and the Thunder to figure out how to solve Gobert and the Jazz defense. He isn’t snickering at Gobert anymore and the Jazz appear to be surging toward the Houston Rockets in the second round.

And any team wanting to get past the Jazz this postseason will need to figure how to limit Gobert’s influence on the game, which is something the Thunder and a host of other teams have been unable to do since January.

Andrew John

Andrew is a career journalist who write for the Desert Sun in Southern California. His work has also been seen major publications such as the Los Angeles Times and USA Today, as well as prominent basketball sites such as SI's The Cauldron and 16 Wins a Ring.

One Comment

  1. John Jenkins says:

    This is on top of Rudy’s never quit attitude. He is so motivated to succeed.

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