The Utah Jazz have known what they’ve had for a while in all-NBA center Rudy Gobert.
But after a 14-game absence, it was good to be reminded.
Making his first start since mid-December, Gobert measured up to his reputation. Against the New York Knicks, he slammed back rebounds for dunks, he finished tough shots around the rim, and he — of course — got his blocks in.
So even though the Jazz initially planned for him to play just 24 minutes on Friday night, he subbed back in with five minutes left to make a push to win. It wasn’t enough in a 117-115 Utah loss, and the Frenchman spent much of his time arguing with officials.
On one hand, it was a relief for the Jazz to get back their star player. In the first half, they were injected with an energy they’ve rarely had in the last month.
On the other hand, Utah (18-27) is still a team that finds itself struggling just past the midseason mark, with a roster marred by injury and shadowed by trade rumors. And even with Gobert back in the starting lineup — as good as he is — the Jazz are not necessarily one man away from turning everything around.
“I thought he had some really good moments,” coach Quin Snyder said. “Unfortunately collectively we didn’t on defense in the second half. That cost us the game.”
It was close, though, and Gobert played a crucial role with 23 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks.
Rudy Gobert reviews his first game back, and talks about coming in for the fourth quarter. pic.twitter.com/wwMWwW5ID9— Kyle Goon (@kylegoon) January 20, 2018
While Utah trailed by as many as nine points in the final three minutes, the Jazz pushed their way back into the game thanks in large part to free throws. After Joe Johnson made three points at the line, Donovan Mitchell had a 3-pointer that closed the gap to four points. The Jazz answered a Michael Beasley basket with a Gobert layup, plus a free throw on the foul.
The entire Vivint Smart Home Arena crowd shouted “DE-FENSE” as the Jazz got a stop on the other end. But an errant corner 3 from Johnson bounced over the backboard, then the Jazz fouled once they got back on defense.
Tim Hardaway Jr., who led the Knicks with a game-high 31 points, couldn’t put it away at the line initially with two missed free throws, giving the Jazz a chance to to tie. But three straight misses on 3-point attempts on the next possession — by Mitchell, Johnson and Joe Ingles — eventually cost the Jazz a chance to win. Given a second chance on his free throws, Hardaway knocked down both.
Mitchell nailed a 3-pointer with less than a second left, but Utah didn’t have enough time even to foul on the inbounds pass.
The height of Gobert’s comeback game came in the second quarter, as he finished two consecutive tough looks: One basket came on a Eurostep through a double-team for a finger roll, followed by a scoop under Knicks center Kyle O’Quinn for an and-one play. Both shots came from his left hand — a surprising offensive flair for the defense-minded center.
For once, Mitchell didn’t have to rack up buckets for the Jazz to be in a good position at halftime: The rookie only had two points of Utah’s 55-49 lead, but he did have five assists.
Even from the day’s beginning, Mitchell said, Gobert’s return to action had been juice for the entire team.
“I made a joke that he’s like a kid in a chocolate factory, just at shootaround dunking every single time he could,” he said. “He’s excited to be out there. It showed tonight.”
The Knicks rallied to begin the third quarter, which has been Utah’s statistically most porous period this season. Out of the break, New York charged to a 19-10 run while making eight of their first 10 shots.
That was when Mitchell’s struggles started to hurt: He had only three points in the third quarter, while the Knicks backcourt torched the Jazz defense.Hardaway and Courtney Lee helped lead a rally that gave New York 36 points to Utah’s 23 in the third quarter.
“I didn’t think we were as aggressive or as physical as we needed to be — just having stronger will on the defensive end,” Snyder said. “It wasn’t any one thing. It was too many things.”
Quin Snyder says he’s glad that Gobert was able to play into the fourth quarter tonight, but that the game was lost in the third. pic.twitter.com/w2m2VoAC02— Kyle Goon (@kylegoon) January 20, 2018
Beyond Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek, a former Jazz player and coach, Vivint Smart Home Arena saw the return of former Utah lottery picks Enes Kanter and Trey Burke. Kanter was heavily booed during his appearance, in which he scored 12 points and added nine rebounds. Burke had a more mixed crowd reaction, but he gave the Jazz a few headaches with 7 points, including two key 4th-quarter buckets.