Rudy Gobert’s crucial late defense helps Jazz hold off Trail Blazers, 121-115

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson warms up as the Utah Jazz host the Portland Trail Blazers, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 26, 2019.

Joe Ingles dominated the Jazz’s first-half offense. Donovan Mitchell was their main bucket-getter after the break.

As for Rudy Gobert, well, he was a defensive game-wrecker all night long, especially in the final minute of Thursday night’s game, when he prevented Damian Lillard from even trying one game-tying 3-point attempt, forced Carmelo Anthony into airballing another, and ultimately sealed the deal with an emphatic rejection of a Lillard layup in the waning seconds.

From there, the Jazz made enough free throws to earn a hold-on-for-dear-life 121-115 win over the Blazers at Vivint Smart Home Arena.

Ingles scored 17 of his 26 points in the first half, Mitchell had 28 of his 35 in the second half, and Gobert contributed 16 points, 15 rebounds, and countless shot alterations.

“Those two hustle plays by Rudy really sealed the game. You can say what you want about my scoring or Joe, but at the end of the day, it came down to Rudy making two good plays,” said Mitchell. “That’s why he is who he is, that’s why we rely on him.”

Of course, ideally, the Jazz would like to not have to rely on him quite so much, but here we are.

And there they were after seeing a 20-point lead to begin the fourth quarter whittled all the way down to one with 4:39 to go, thanks to a 26-7 Portland run.

The Jazz’s offense had become stagnant. Their defense could do nothing with the suddenly incendiary backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, the latter of whom dropped 18 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter alone, while the former kept the Viv crowd on edge by drilling a couple of deep, contested 3s.

In the end, the Jazz did what they usually do — turned to Mitchell to save the day.

After getting off to a slow start, with just seven points before halftime, he dropped 16 in the third quarter, and 12 more in the fourth to give Utah just enough breathing room to stay in front. He also excelled in locating teammates for timely baskets, finishing with a team-high seven assists vs. only two turnovers.

“We tell him to shoot it as much as possible. We need him to be aggressive. He plays his best when he’s aggressive, getting downhill,” said Ingles. “He’s a lot better creator. People automatically think he’s just a scorer, but the way he can create for his teammates is pretty unreal for a kid his age. We push him to be as aggressive as possible, and tonight was a great example of that.”

Of course, Mitchell said that feeling was mutual, noting the Jazz wouldn’t have had a lead to squander at all if not for Ingles, who made his first six shots of the game — including 5 of 5 from 3-point range — for 17 big points that staked Utah to an early advantage.

“He said he gets tired from shooting. I said, ‘Joe, you need to keep doing it. I know you’re old, but keep doing it,’” Mitchell said. “When he’s confident like that, that’s the Joe Ingles [from] when I came here; that’s the Joe Ingles the past two years that I’ve known.”

The team also got a first half boost from new guard Jordan Clarkson, acquired this week in exchange for Dante Exum and two second-round picks.

The scoring guard instantly made his presence felt, as he dropped in all nine of his points in 11 first-half minutes.

“You can tell he wants it. There’s a hunger about him, and … he plays with a level of confidence that we need,” said coach Quin Snyder. “… He’s trying to do everything right, and that’s hard when you’re not sure where to go or what to do all the time. Good start. I think our team really embraced him.”

And, of course, they’re always embracing Gobert’s penchant for defensive heroics.

Thanks to his latest, they’ve now won six of their past seven to improve to 19-12 on the season.

“The biggest thing, like I keep saying, is the resiliency, finding a way. It’s easy for teams to cave when Dame’s going crazy and CJ’s going crazy. We could’ve easily caved,” said Mitchell. “… The mindset we’ve had these past six, seven games is who we need to be.”