SC7: Gobert Dominates on Both Ends, Exum Returns, the Playoff Push Intensifies

March 17th, 2018 | by Dan Clayton

Gobert’s dominating lately, and not just on D. (Melissa Majchrzak via utahjazz.com)

While the Jazz keep rolling through their March schedule, we have a lot of work to do to roll through all the storylines, news and subplots.

Every week here at Salt City Hoops1 we recap the previous seven days in Jazz land by looking at the prominent stories, stats, performances and plays that defined the last 168 hours. It’s our Salt City Seven feature, and it’s chock full of fun stuff this week. So let’s get to it.

 

A quick(ish) exploration of a prominent theme from the week or the current state of Utah Jazz basketball.

The Jazz just keep extending their historic turnaround. Fifty-two days ago, they woke up nine games under .500 and with fast-waning playoff odds. Since then, they’re 20-2 and have climbed to the Western Conference’s seventh seed.

After 52 incredulous days of poring over the possible explanations for how a .400 team suddenly becomes an unstoppable buzzsaw, it’s clear that there are many heroes. A number of positive trends have helped Utah notch more wins in their past 22 games than they did in the previous 47: Ricky Rubio’s improved play, Donovan Mitchell’s growing poise, Joe Ingles’ hot shooting. They have adjusted some X-and-O nuances to capitalize on player strengths. They made personnel moves to replace the minutes of low-efficiency volume scorers with guys who more often than not make the right basketball play and don’t care who gets the shot. They’ve gotten solid play from Derrick Favors, and more consistency from their bench.

Oh, and they have also unleashed a reinvigorated, healthy, dominant Rudy Gobert.

It’s not that Gobert doesn’t get credit for the Jazz’s improvement. It’s just that too often the praise for the Stifle Tower focuses solely on his game-changing, smothering, demoralizing defense. That’s well-deserved. But the 7-foot-2 French center is, more than ever, dominating on both ends.

Gobert is averaging 15.6 points on 9 field goal attempts per game and 71 percent from the line since that January 24 awakening. All of those figures would be career highs over the course of a season for Gobert, who started to come into his own last season as an elite roll man, but was still very much a secondary threat. Now, you feel Gobert’s presence on offense just as much as on defense. Over this 22-game stretch, the Jazz offense produces 111.2 points per 100 possessions, just a few tenths of a point behind Rubio for best on the team over that stretch.

This might be the most dominant Gobert has played on the offensive end for such a long stretch in his career. After a rough start to the year, he has worked his way up to the 87th percentile for pick-and-roll finishing with 1.31 points per possession he closes on said rim dives. The 9’7″ standing reach and Quin Snyder’s clever playbook certainly help, but part of the improvement here is that Rudy is finding more ways to finish those plays. He’s no longer just interested in dunking everything — oh, don’t get me wrong, he’ll destroy the rim if given the chance, but his menu of options for close finishes has never benefited from so much footwork and finesse. Reverses, euro-steps, even drives from the elbow — Gobert’s offensive game is getting better.

The free throws are a big deal, too. His attempts are about flat, but the jump to 71% on freebies is a huge deal. Any recipe one could have concocted before the season to get Gobert’s scoring average to jump by a couple of points would have by necessity included an improve free-throw shot, and Gobert has obliged. 

That’s why his scoring is starting to look like that of a real offensive threat. His 15.6 points in the last 22 games feels quite sustainable. During the most recent 8-game win streak, he’s averaging 19.1. Holy smokes. Imagine if that Gobert sticks around.

But it’s not just his own scoring that gets better; since January 24, the Jazz are shooting 39 percent from three when Gobert is on the floor and 40 percent when Rubio plays. That’s remarkable since neither are great outside shooters individually2. That others around those two get so much better shooting from deep despite a Rudy-Ricky pairing’s obvious spacing deficiencies is a testament to the gravity of the Gobert roll, the impact of his screening, and the ability of Rubio’s tenacity to bend defenses by attacking.

It’s almost Jazz folklore by now that the club dealt to get Gobert in the 2013 draft because they were impressed by his will to get better. That desire is on display once again this year, and the big man is evolving into a reliable scorer and an offensive catalyst. He is, both offensively and defensively, carrying his team into the playoffs.

 

Words from a Jazz player or coach about a relevant or timely topic.

“The expectation is that he competes, does the things that he knows he needs to do to help the team win… One of the things that Dante has is the ability to play multiple positions. So I don’t want him to play like Raul (Neto), I don’t want him to play like Ricky, I don’t want him to play like Donovan, I don’t want him to play like Joe. I just want him to be Dante..”

– Snyder, on the return of point guard Dante Exum, who played his first game of the season on Thursday

As if the week hadn’t been exciting enough in the world of all things Jazz, the basketball gods served up something we hadn’t seen since early October: a healthy Exum.

“I’m just excited to finally get out there tonight and join the guys in the successful season so far that they’ve been having,” Exum said prior to his long-awaited 2017-18 premier. “So hopefully I can join in and fit right in.”

So far, so good. Exum had 10 points in his season debut, with a mix of driving layups and free throws earned through aggressiveness. It was an auspicious first step, and the Jazz hope that it’s just a start.

I wrote elsewhere about Exum’s progress as a player and what his return could mean to the Jazz in the immediate term, so I won’t rehash that here. The bottom line is the most important aspect of Exum’s return is that it gives the 22-year-old a chance to continue progressing towards being an NBA difference-maker. As Snyder pointed out in the hours leading up to his point guard’s debut, that process was going well before the latest injury, a shoulder separation that cost Exum 68 games.

“As much as anything, I think he was getting more and comfortable. More at ease,” the coach explained. “When that happens, the game slows down. He was attacking the rim, making good decisions, shooting the ball more confidently. All those things take time to find, and you’re going to have ups and downs over the course of the year even if you’re healthy.”

 

Keeping track of Utah’s playoff chances

Utah is finally starting to move from the right to left on our handy playoff race graphic, but they’re not quite out of the woods yet. Seeds 4 through 10 are still separated by just two games in the loss column. Any team that drops an unexpected couple of games could quickly find itself out in the cold.

With less than 4 weeks to go, the Western Conference 3-10 race remains a gauntlet.

The Jazz no longer have the easiest schedule, and once they get three lottery teams out of the way, it will jump to being one of those most difficult ones over the final 10-game stretch. Luckily, the Clippers and Nuggets have brutal closing slates as well, which bodes well for Utah’s chances at keeping the two current non-playoff teams on their back.

 

Stats and figures that help tell prominent stories from the week.

14+

The Jazz have won eight overall, but their last six wins have come by margins of at least 14 points. That’s the longest streak in franchise history of wins by 14 or more, besting the five straight that the ’88-89 and ’06-07 Jazz each enjoyed. Only 11 teams in NBA history have matched Utah’s current streak of six, and three of those lopsided streaks came this year: the Warriors and Rockets also have done it this season.

The NBA record for such a streak is eight straight, by the 2003-04 Pistons. Utah could match that if they score lopsided home victories against the lottery-bound Sacramento and Atlanta. 

6

The Jazz have now beat the Pelicans in the last six consecutive games that featured both Gobert and Anthony Davis. Utah took the season series from New Orleans with their Sunday win, which could be relevant since the teams are now just one loss apart. (For the record, Gobert has also won his last four head-to-head meetings with Detroit’s Andre Drummond.)

 

A quick dissection of an awesome bit of Jazz offense from the week.

It just seemed right to feature something from Exum’s first game back. Most of his scoring plays were pretty straightforward from an X-and-O standpoint, so here instead is the Australian guard’s first assist of the 2017-18 season.

The play starts with Exum faking a baseline cut and then setting a backscreen for Ingles before coming back out to receive the ball on a screen-handoff. The Jazz initiate this way a lot. Exum’s defender has to be a little preoccupied with showing on the Exum backscreen, lest Jingles get a wide open layup. So one of two things will happen: either the defender will already be behind heading into the Crowder screen, or the Jazz will get a favorable switch, as in this case. We’ll call that part of the action a “guard backscreen to DHO3.”

From there it gets better, thanks to great timing. Watch Exum and Jingles in particular; the latter makes his cut behind Favors’ flare screen exactly as Exum begins to go right to left over the Crowder DHO. It’s great to see them nail that timing on one of their first possessions together in five months. This results in the pair connecting seamlessly and Ingles getting a wide open three, which for him lately is like dropping a basketball into the Great Salt Lake.

 

Doling out credit for Jazz wins, one imaginary Spalding at a time.

Jazz 95, Grizzlies 78: Jae Crowder

It wasn’t just that he finally had a game where the shots dropped. It wasn’t just the season-high 22 points of the career-high six 3-pointers. The Jazz just looked really good when Crowder was in the game. Virtually all of their most dominant lineups that evening had Crowder at the 4. He was good defensively, too, contesting a ton of shots and moving on a string. Rubio (15-10-5), Ingles (16, 4 triples) and Gobert (only 4 points but dominant defensively) were all huge, too.

Jazz 116, Pelicans 99: Donovan Mitchell

To say that Rubio just “kept it close” for Mitchell would be a huge understatement. The Spaniard (30, 10 & 7) was arguably the MVP of the game as a whole, and actually did more fourth-quarter damage than the rookie. But there’s just no way to skip past what Mitchell did in that game, turning it on to the tune of 18 points in just over three minutes. And that was the stretch that quite literally won Utah the game: his personal 18-6 run brought Utah from five down to a seven-point lead. All told, Utah scored a remarkable 53 points over the game’s final 15 minutes and change; Donovan scored 25 of those, while Ricky & Rudy each added nine. In a must-win game. With playoff implications. On the road. Against an MVP candidate. Simply amazing stuff from Mitchell & the gang.

Jazz 110, Pistons 79: Rudy Gobert

Another dominant performance by Utah’s dominant big man. Gobert scored 22 on 9-for-12 shooting, and added 12 boards and a pair of blocks. He significantly outplayed All-Star Drummond, and he held Detroit to 1-of-4 around the rim. Ingles’ 17-7-7 line merits mention, as does the bench play of both Crowder and Jonas Jerebko. The former had another nice shooting night on the way to 14 points, and Jerebko added 16 to go with eight boards.

Jazz 116, Suns 88: Joe Ingles

So many candidates. Some of you suggested we celebrate Exum’s return and his 10-point outing by giving it to him. Crowder was big again. Rubio had 11 assists and absorbed a literal beating from two frustrated Suns who pushed him to the hardwood in a second-half scrum. Gobert (21 & 13) and Mitchell (23-6-4) wreaked their usual havoc. But ultimately the Ingles voters swayed me. Not only did he can four triples and post his second straight 17-point night, but he was the first to step in on Rubio’s behalf when the Suns threw their classless, dangerous tantrum. He was also really freaking good overall. His 73.1 defensive rating was the best of the rotation guys. 

But really, in a game like that, throw a dart at a wall and just pick a guy.

 

Because, at the end of the day, this should be fun.

Plenty of fun this week, but what’s cooler than this?

The son of Jazz great John Stockton, who has appeared in three NBA games since graduating from Gonzaga in 2014, just joined the franchise where his dad became a legend.

And if that’s not fun enough, here’s an awesome detail that SCH’s David Smith caught: David Stockton was born the summer before the Jazz signed Corey Crowder, whose son Jae had been born a year earlier. That’s right: Jae and Davis were “Jazz babies together” and now will be teammates for at least the next 10 days.

No need to welcome Stockton to the Jazz family; he’s been a part of it all along.

Salt City Seven 2017-18 Archive

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops, FanRag and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

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  1. Pingback: SC7: Snyder’s Masterful Job, Gobert Keeps Dominating & More | Salt City Hoops

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