Late in the second quarter Wednesday night at Vivint Arena, Joel Embiid got the ball at the 3-point line and faced up his counterpart, two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.
He dribbled between his legs and attempted a crossover. Stopped. He drove and pump-faked, trying to entice a foul. Sniffed out and snuffed out. Finally, he went up and, looking for something to do with the ball, found nothing, and was whistled for traveling. Stifled.
Gobert’s effort on that sequence was a nice microcosm of the Jazz’s smothering defensive effort all night, as they limited the visiting Sixers to just 41.3% shooting in handing Philly only its second defeat of the season, 106-104.
Gobert finished with 14 points, 16 rebounds, three assists, three steals and a block, as Utah fended off a late rally to snap a two-game losing streak and improve to 5-3 on the season.
As for the numbers that mattered most to coach Quin Snyder afterward: the relatively minute 13 turnovers the Jazz committed; the 50-42 advantage in rebounds (including a 14-7 edge on the offensive glass); and the mere 10 second-chance points and nine fast-break points Philly tallied as a result.
“The most important thing, really, was for us to take care of the ball — get good shots and not put ourselves in transition situations,” he said. “And then, the next thing was to rebound and not give them second-chance points.”
As for his players — their work on the boards was of particular importance beforehand, and a source of pride afterward, considering their lackluster effort on the glass was a big factor in their preceding losses to the Kings and Clippers.
“We lost the past two games, I wouldn’t say solely off of that, but a big part of it was off the offensive rebounds,” said Donovan Mitchell, who had team-highs of 24 points and eight assists while adding five rebounds. “We came in with a team that was pretty big — their shortest [starting] guy was 6-6 — [so] just continuing to box out and get hits.”
His backcourt compatriot, Mike Conley, added that two days’ worth of having their rebounding ineptitude drilled into their heads convinced him to put his money where his mouth was.
“We watched a lot of film of missed boxouts, and everybody was guilty. I told ’em they could fine me a hundred dollars every time I miss a boxout from now on,” said Conley, who had six boards to go along with his 15 points. “So I was all over the place trying to get rebounds. I didn’t wanna give up no money! I think everybody took it to heart.”
It was a solid victory against a talented opponent (albeit one that lost All-Star guard Ben Simmons to a first-half shoulder injury). It was made all the more impressive by the fact that Philly’s big-and-tall lineup wreaked havoc in the opening minutes, to the tune of a 9-2 lead; and by the fact that, owing to a few missed calls, Utah did not get its first free throw attempts of the game until only 2:28 before halftime; and by the fact that 21 Jazz fouls resulted in 34 Philly free throw attempts.
Still Utah found itself up two points at the break. The Jazz then started the third quarter on a 20-9 run to expand the advantage to double digits and gain some much needed breathing room.
They would never trail again.
Which is not to say it was easy. On multiple occasions, the Sixers rallied to within two points. And despite their shooting touch going cold at the most inopportune time (Utah made only two of its final nine field-goal attempts), the Jazz still found ways to squeeze out just enough points — via a Conley layup-and-one, repeated Mitchell trips to the line, a wide-open Bojan Bogdanovic 3.
The Sixers got the ball down four with 6.2 seconds remaining, hoping for a quick basket, some missed free throws and a prayer.
But that swarming defense flustered their plans, enabling them to get a shot off only just before the final horn sounded.
Snyder was particularly impressed with the job Bogdanovic did in limiting the much-larger Horford to just seven points (on 3-of-14 shooting) and four rebounds (“He had a big stretch there,” the coach said). And while Embiid totaled a game-high 27 points, 16 of those came via made free throws, as the physicality of Gobert and reserve Tony Bradley forced him to work for every point.
“Tony Bradley played his ass off,” Mitchell said. “A lot of us have been seeing the work he put in. Joel got to the free-throw line 18 times, but for him to go 5 of 16 [from the field] between Rudy and Tony, give them the credit for sure.”