As Thunder go smaller on Rudy Gobert, the Jazz center readies for the challenge

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz host the Oklahoma City Thunder, Game 3, NBA playoff basketball in Salt Lake City, Saturday April 21, 2018. Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) defends Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George (13).

The key to Oklahoma City’s offensive success in this series has never been a secret: The Thunder want to get Rudy Gobert away from the basket.

The latest manifestation of that goal — a small-ball lineup with Patrick Patterson at center — caught the Jazz off-guard on Saturday night, leading to a Thunder rally that had them up midway through the second quarter.

There are times to play matchups in playoff series. But don’t expect the Jazz to yank Gobert just because the Thunder are going small — especially if that resolves the way it did in Game 3. Utah’s candidate for Defensive Player of the Year has been tested and is going to continue to be tested at the perimeter.

“I guess they’re trying to get Rudy off the basket because he’s hell in there blocking shots,” Jonas Jerebko said of his 7-foot-1 teammate. “But we’ll be ready for whatever they got.”

Gobert’s office is the area around the rim, where the French center is at his best blocking shots. Utah’s defense has had some influence on the Thunder’s shot selection in this regard: Oklahoma City is averaging fewer shots inside of 10 feet and making fewer of them (65.5 percent down to 63 percent). Gobert has six blocks in the series.

The most notable influence Gobert has had is arguably on Russell Westbrook, who has taken 40 jump shots this series of his 61 attempts, according to NBA tracking data. Westbrook is in his element when he can drive to the rim, which is an area Gobert has helped deter him from. Even when Westbrook has driven inside of five feet, his finishing for the series there (52.4 percent) is lower than his season average (58.0).

So naturally, the Thunder have tried to figure out ways to open up the paint, either opening a play behind Gobert, or getting him to guard a smaller player. The Jazz count that as part of the cost of playing Gobert, and they’ll challenge him to guard competently in those situations.

“I think it’s something he takes pride in,” coach Quin Snyder said. “Those are hard matchups, and he’s not always going to be successful. He reaches too much. I think the biggest thing for him is to really concentrate and focus. He’s going to find himself in those situations.”

In his own self-evaluation on Sunday afternoon, Gobert felt he had a bit of a mixed bag dealing with those situations. On some, such as a 3-pointer by Patterson in the first quarter, he felt he gave too much space. Other plays, such as a 17-foot Westbrook pull-up in the first half, Gobert simply couldn’t do all that much except contest.

But not doing too much might be the key for Gobert: On a second-half play against Westbrook, he challenged a look at the 3-point line that went wide. On other plays (not specific to Game 3), Gobert can use his length to force an opponent to drive and has the wingspan to block him on the back end.

For his part, Gobert feels that it’s something he’s gotten better at as his career has progressed.

“I’m stronger on my legs, quicker on my feet, but I’m also more experienced,” he said. “It’s a lot of things.”

There’s also a significant drawback to trying to stretch Gobert out with smaller lineups: The Thunder, the best offensive rebounding team in the regular season, were thoroughly cleaned on the boards on Saturday night. While Steven Adams was saddled with foul trouble, the Jazz proudly noted that OKC’s 7-footer didn’t grab an offensive rebound, which has happened only one other time this season. The Jazz finished plus-15 in rebounding, and Gobert led the way with 12.

If the Thunder try to deploy a five-out lineup again, they won’t have the element of surprise — the Jazz spent some of Sunday’s practice studying their options against it, and Snyder said he felt good about some of the adjustments the team made in the game.

If the Thunder keep trying to draw Gobert out to perimeter and switch him onto smaller players, the Jazz expect him to do what he always does: play good defense.

“He can’t take those matchup situations personally,” Snyder said. “He’s gotta use his length and use his skill set to try to make whoever he’s guarding do something that they’re not comfortable with.”