Asked after Wednesday’s 117-96 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers at Vivint Smart Home Arena if he knew his block total while the game was ongoing, Jazz center Rudy Gobert claimed ignorance, prompting Donovan Mitchell to interject from one locker over, “Man, you knew you had seven blocks!”
“Actually,” Gobert corrected in a sly tone, “I thought I had eight.”
The pair then burst out laughing, feeling good about closing the NBA’s slate of Christmas day matchups with Utah’s third victory in its past four games.
Gobert, who finished with his 29th double-double of the season by adding 18 points and 14 rebounds, was more serious in describing his overall defensive impact.
“It’s all about being aware and being disciplined,” he said. “I try to communicate to my teammates to help them out, and then when they get beat I try to have their backs. That’s how the team works, and it’s great.”
Gobert & Co. put forth another stellar defensive effort in knocking off the Blazers for the second time in five days, harassing Portland’s shooters into converting just 39.3 percent of their shots from the field, and limiting them to only nine made shots from deep for the game.
“It’s his ability to play all over the court. It’s what we need from him. He can still protect the rim and also be impactful out on the floor,” said coach Quin Snyder. “We’ve got to be able to protect him too, because when we do that, it puts him in positions where he can impact the game — not just plugging holes, but doing some of the things he did tonight.”
Of course, the lockdown was necessary considering Utah’s own early offensive inadequacies.
The first-quarter 3-point shooting undoubtedly pushed aggrieved fans to suggest that perhaps more drives to the hoop should be commenced. The first-half free-throw tries might have encouraged those usually begging for some respect from the refs to instead wish they’d just put their whistles away for a bit. In those opening 12 minutes of action, the Jazz were 0 for 8 from deep, and just 2 for 8 from the foul line.
That defense, though, plus a flurry of activity from Derrick Favors and Gobert inside, and Ricky Rubio setting up his teammates, meant that despite those abysmal shooting numbers, the game was still tied.
And so, once Utah actually started making some of those shots, the game turned in its favor in a big way.
It didn’t take long. Jae Crowder earned a dubious foul call on a 3-point try, and made two of the freebies. Moments later, he buried the team’s first shot behind the arc. Then Joe Ingles and Crowder hit back-to-back treys late in the period, and Utah wound up going 5 for 7 from deep in the second frame to earn a 59-47 advantage.
“We know how we’re going to score, how we want to attack these guys,” Crowder said. “We believe in our shots and we believe in the work we put in, so [it was about] just staying aggressive from that point on from the 3-point line, and they were going to fall.”
While Damian Lillard kept the Blazers within shouting distance, thanks to 16 first-half points, his teammates couldn’t do much to crack the Jazz’s defense and help him out. Portland shot just 37.5 percent from the field and went only 3 of 12 from deep in the opening half. (Lillard finished with 20 for the game.)
The third quarter was off-kilter offensively again, as Utah had to make do with sporadic shot-making. Following a nice recovery-and-block from Gobert, Rubio shot the ball with confidence, converting a pair of baskets on back-to-back possessions. Otherwise, Utah didn’t do a whole lot to build its lead, salvaging a passable quarter only thanks to a late barrage of 3s from Ingles, Korver, and Dante Exum.
In the fourth, the Jazz played enough defense and made just enough shots to gradually pull away. Portland never got closer than nine in the fourth quarter, while Utah pulled away to its eventual 21-point margin.
After scoring but three points on 1-for-10 shooting in the teams’ matchup in Portland last Friday, Mitchell was far better this time around, totaling 14 in the first half on 6-for-11 from the floor, and finishing with a team-high 19 points on 8-for-18 shooting.
He said afterward he was particularly proud of how the Jazz answered every Portland attempt at a comeback.
“Mental focus — that’s all it is. We’ve been in this situation at the beginning of the year, and we didn’t have it. Now, we’re adjusting and making those kinds of plays,” he said. “… There’s still a few lapses we had where we kinda got complacent, and then fixed it. Now we want to play a game where we don’t have any complacency at all.”
Meanwhile, the Jazz — who shot 55.4 percent overall and wound up hitting 44.8 percent from deep — got contributions from everywhere, with seven players scoring in double-figures. Ingles finished with 15 points, seven rebounds, and five assists. Exum chipped in 15 points and four assists. Rubio had 14 points and six assists, Crowder added 12 points and six rebounds, and Korver contributed 10 points.
The Jazz improved to 17-18 on the season, while Portland dropped to 19-15.
And so Utah’s players celebrated. Crowder emerged clad head to toe in black pajamas, proclaiming, “All silk, baby!” And indeed, they appeared nearly as smooth as Utah’s latest display of defense.