The Triple Team: Rudy Gobert carries the Utah Jazz to a victory against Mavericks

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) reacts to a call as the Utah Jazz host the Dallas Mavericks, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 112-107 win over the Dallas Mavericks from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Rudy Gobert is playing at an MVP level right now

It’s easy to get into hyperbole land when talking about Rudy Gobert.

The problem is that there’s a gap between what Rudy Gobert actually does for the Jazz versus what casual fans think about his game, and as a writer who sees the former and has to try to explain it to the latter, you try to bridge the gap. So you can say things like “Gobert’s 12 screen assists gave him the triple double,” because fans know what triple doubles are, and think they’re really good. But even casual NBA fans have BS detectors that go off when they hear things like that, and I think that’s understandable.

So what can you do? Honestly, I think you just have to show them. Here’s his final block tonight.

Gobert has to do the work of three defenders here. He has to stop Luka Doncic from driving after the screen catches Royce O’Neale. He has to prevent Delon Wright, a good 3-point shooter this year, from taking the three. And he has to be a rim protector, preventing Wright from scoring the easy layup. And somehow he does all three. It’s just ridiculous.

He’s now a terrific one-on-one defensive option against the best players in the league, too. The Jazz started switching some of the Doncic stuff just to deal with it more effectively. Doncic is having an MVP-caliber season himself, thanks to his ability to take the stepback 3, drive and finish, and get fouled. His skill level is perhaps the very best in the NBA, it’s either Doncic or James Harden. So again, there’s a lot that Gobert has to take away all at once. He does it.

Doncic scored 25, but it took him 25 shots to get there. He had 7 assists, but 4 turnovers, too. He played relatively well, I thought, but it was one of his worst games of the season, in large part because Gobert shut him down in his one-on-one matchups.

But Gobert’s offensive development has continued. He’s shooting 69% from the field for the season. Tonight, he went 8-8 from the field, scoring 22 points.

Having one player who goes 8-8 means that everyone else can shoot the ball really poorly all night long, and you’ll still have a chance to win. Like, the rest of the Jazz shot a combined 38% from the field — that’s terrible! And the Jazz still won because 8-8 bumps up your scoring percentages enough that you can have a 115 ORtg.

This was a superstar dragging a team to a win in every conceivable way: offense, defense, clutch game-winning plays, leadership on the court, etc. Gobert didn’t score 50. But he got them this win against a terrific Dallas team in his own way.

I mean, Gobert took Enes Kanter’s job way back when. He has every reason to be salty. But at this point, there’s no choice but to be impressed.

2. Donovan went hero ball early, and then made a big unselfish play late

Donovan Mitchell made some really sketchy decisions in the first half of this game. He finished the half 4-14 from the field with four turnovers. That’s too many misses, and too many giveaways.

Here’s one example. It’s the end of the quarter, so the Mavs are ready for Mitchell to attack. In fact, after the rub screen by Royce O’Neale, they just leave Doncic and Hardaway on Mitchell, double-teaming him out at the 3-point line.

Mitchell sees the traffic and tries to spin through it, but Hardaway has a pretty easy strip here. It’s a good hustle play to get his hand on the ball to force the jump ball — the Mavs won it — but he shouldn’t have been in that situation in the first place.

In general, Mitchell was forcing too much at the beginning of the game. Maybe he was looking to make a statement against a quality opponent, but the Jazz weren’t going to have success that way. And I thought it was telling that, after halftime, the Jazz put the ball in Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles’ hands more, letting them do their thing.

But the Jazz know that they’ll have to come back to Mitchell, and at the most important time, he made the right play.

Doncic comes over to help inside with Gobert and the Mitchell drive. At first, it looks like he’s going to try to dunk in traffic, but Mitchell sees O’Neale open and kicks it to him for the three that gave the Jazz their final and lasting lead of the game. After the game, Mitchell dapped up O’Neale, saying emphatically “BIG TRUST.”

(Update: I am now told that it’s more likely that they were saying “BIG TRUSS,” which is a thing Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson — who went to Louisville like Mitchell — started saying, and it became kind of a Ravens slogan. Its exact meaning is not super clear, but... all who describe it end up using a synonym of “trust” in their definition. So while this is the latest example of me not being a cool person, me thinking he said BIG TRUST doesn’t actually change the meaning of what he said.)

We’ve seen Mitchell develop in the middle of games like this frequently, and one of the Jazz’s most reliable splits is his second-half scoring being larger than his first-half point total. It’s a good problem! I just wish he would keep his eyes out more consistently to begin games, and realize when his efforts to try to beat a team by himself can be counterproductive.

3. Basketball as chess match

That was a phenomenally interesting game between two of the best coaches in the NBA, Rick Carlisle and Quin Snyder. Pregame, they each gave each other large shares of credit for their explosive offenses right now, and it was fun to see them try to solve the problems each posed throughout the game.

I can see a lot of the chess match, but I’m not as quick at it as more experienced NBA watchers. So to make up that gap, one of my favorite follows on Twitter is coach Steve Jones Jr., who brings his experience as an assistant coach with the Nets and a video analyst with the Grizzlies to the public while watching these games.

Jones did a great job explaining the early battle as the Jazz struggled to defend the Mavericks pick and roll. First, the Jazz were a little too late switching Gobert onto Doncic, which allowed Porzingis to get open for threes. Then, the Mavs added a wrinkle, going with the Spain PnR to add additional confusion and threats to the play, it got them an early dunk. The Jazz started defending it better, bringing Mike Conley in the switch, but still Doncic’s skill and size was too much.

So the Jazz tried to trap it, but clever cuts by Dallas’ big men got dunks anyway. Finally, the Jazz figured out good timing on the switching: O’Neale stayed attached, making the backwards pass difficult, while Gobert walled off the paint, resulting in a block.

Later, the Jazz tried a different strategy: having Gobert guard the least threatening shooter. At first, that was Dorian Finney-Smith, but then when the Mavs subbed DFS out for Tim Hardaway, Gobert had to guard Delon Wright, a smaller and quicker guard. And that’s when Gobert recovered, with the game-winning block you saw in point No. 1.

That’s just how the Jazz defended screening actions with Doncic involved. There were so many other chess matches here: how the Jazz scored, how to defend Porzingis in the post, how to take advantage of some of Dallas’ smaller lineups, how to make Doncic a defender, all of that.

But that’s one reason basketball is brilliant: because it does have this strategic complexity that can result in back-and-forth nights like tonight. What a showcase this game was.