It’s happened before, but it still sometimes surprises. As Rudy Gobert sat the final 7:11 of the game against the Memphis Grizzlies, Derrick Favors helped guide the Jazz to an eventual 107-97 victory.
It wasn’t Gobert’s night. While he still had nine points and 10 rebounds, the 7-foot-1 center had been frustrated with Memphis’ physicality, had been on the officials to call more fouls, only took four shots. Favors seemed more engaged — he had four blocks to go with 10 points, and he finished plus-nine to Gobert’s plus-one.
But what has made the combination work between Utah’s two big men — despite doubts for years that they can share space on the roster, much less the floor at the same time — is that they’re not in competition. They’re ready to cede the floor for the other man when the need arises.
They’re willing to sacrifice.
“He knows what I can do. I know what he can do. So there’s no beef or anything like egotistic-type thing,” Favors said. “We just support each other. If I’m playing well, I’ll stay in. If he’s playing well, he’ll stay in. There’s no beef. We’re friends.”
It’s been a humbling season for those anticipating a poor showing in Utah’s size-heavy starting lineup. While the Jazz didn’t start the season well offensively with both Gobert and Favors on the floor at the same time, near the end of the season, the starting lineup has been a success, and the numbers back it up.
The Jazz have outscored opponents by 6.2 points per 100 possessions with Gobert, Favors, Joe Ingles, Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell. Defensively, the lineup has been very good (99.5 defensive rating). Offensively, it’s been good enough (105.6 offensive rating). It’s been even better since Jan. 24, when the Jazz have gone 24-5, with the Jazz starters outscoring opponents nearly 20 points per 100 possessions.
The Jazz have made it work with two big men who aren’t feared long-range shooting threats while the rest of the NBA chases the small-ball revolution. And yet the questions never are over. Even as Utah (43-33) has surged, observers question: It may work in the regular season, but can it work in the playoffs?
Gobert shakes his head.
“I think when you lose, people find things to doubt. When you win, they can’t forget about it,” he said. “So I think we’ve won a lot of games together this year. At the end of the day, people are always going to talk. We just got to do what we do on the court. When we do it right, people are going to shut up, and when we do it wrong, people are going to talk again.”
Why has it worked? In a recent article on stat site Cleaning The Glass, author Ben Falk pointed out that the Jazz have tweaked the scheme slightly. Favors still hasn’t evolved into a reliable 3-point shooter (23 percent) but is just dangerous enough in the corner that sometimes defenders will drift toward him, which opens the lane. When defenders leave him open, Favors has developed a knack for making a cut to the rim, often finishing with a dunk.
In fact, Favors has 136 dunks this season — more than any other season in his career. And while his per-game stats (12.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg) don’t pop off the charts, he’s been undoubtedly productive, and he’s factored heavily in Utah’s run toward the postseason.
There’s a tendency, some players in the locker room feel, to blame the Favors-Gobert combination when the five-man lineup does poorly. While critics will point to the interior spacing when the Jazz offense slumps, interior spacing on offense is just as affected by Utah’s 3-point shooting. When guards aren’t making 3s, defenses can collapse to the paint. Favors and Gobert often shoulder that criticism anyway.
Donovan Mitchell said the team doesn’t feel that way. And players often feel more that Favors and Gobert are helpful rather than hurtful together.
“It’s easy to say that’s not the traditional NBA lineup, but look where we are with it,” Mitchell said. “It’s not so much a thought for us, ‘Oh we have a non-shooting big at the four, that’s why we’re playing like this.’ We get along very well, we stay connected and move the ball very well. Both of them are a big part of that.”
The biggest reason that the question persists, however, may be because of how Utah has played with a different lineup. Since trading for Jae Crowder, the Jazz often have resorted to a closing lineup without Favors, and with Crowder at the four. For as good as the starting lineup has been lately, the Crowder lineup has a 24 net rating.
It’s a luxury for coach Quin Snyder to have that option, he acknowledged. But it’s not always easy to make that kind of decision, especially given how Favors has played during Utah’s surge.
“Our lineup with Rudy and Jae and those guys has been astronomically good, but it’s also been very good with Fav and the way he’s played,” Snyder said. “Collectively, it’s hard. At the end of the game, when teams are small — and those things usually dictate different lineups, different situations. Fav understands that. I wouldn’t expect him to be OK with that because he’s a competitor, but it doesn’t prevent him from being unbelievably supportive of his teammates.”
And that’s the key: support. Even when outsiders doubt that Favors and Gobert can co-exist or when the Jazz make the choice to sacrifice one’s playing time for the other, they stay on the same page.
Gobert, who is proud enough to declare himself the leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, wasn’t noticeably unnerved by not closing Friday night. Favors has done that plenty of times, and Gobert understands that there will be nights where that is his role.
“You can be worried about too much talking in the media, even though I pay a little attention to it,” Gobert said. “That’s not something we really can let affect us. People love the small ball because it looks good. But when you have two guys who can rebound, protect the basket, and at the same time move and understand the game together offensively ... we’re not worried about that.”
UTAH JAZZ AT MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
Where • Target Center, Minneapolis, Minn.
Tipoff • 5 p.m. MST Sunday
TV • AT&T Sportsnet
Radio • 97.5 FM/1280 AM The Zone
Records • Utah 43-33; Minnesota 44-33
Last meeting • Utah won 116-108 (March 2)
About the Jazz • Ricky Rubio missed the last game against the Memphis Grizzlies with a sore hamstring. ... Dante Exum is coming off a 21-point game against the Grizzlies, which was one point shy of his career high. ... The Jazz have won 13 of their last 14 games on the road.
About the Timberwolves • Both Karl Anthony-Towns and Jeff Teague were ejected in the last meeting with the Jazz. ... All-Star guard Jimmy Butler has missed the last 15 games with a knee injury but was cleared for contact in practice Saturday. ... Towns is scoring 21.2 points and grabbing 12.3 rebounds per game this season.