With his arms hopelessly stretched out to each side, Rudy Gobert stood on the court at Toyota Center as the final seconds slid off the clock of Game 5, a 112-102 Jazz loss to the Rockets, with a troubled look, with a facial expression landing somewhere on the mug-o-meter between disappointed and bewildered. His team, the team he leads, had just been eliminated from the playoffs and the leader himself had once again struggled to make a big enough difference.
He had good moments and bad.
He had a dunk here, a missed dunk there, five blocked shots, a few fumbled rebounds, nine boards, a couple of humorously goofed shots, he altered shots, and had moments of uncertainty.
It — all of it — is something he’s experienced, dealt with, over the past 10 days, the span of a series against a superior team that got largely superior play out of its center. Clint Capela appeared to have outplayed Gobert, not in Game 5, but overall. The Stifle Tower was not stifled, but at least at times neutralized.
Or was he? I have two friends in the biz, both smart, both basketball personnel professionals. One claims Gobert has played so-so, at best. The other says anyone who makes that claim does not understand basketball. Both do get the game, but they disagree.
There is middle ground. One thing’s for certain: Gobert has played better in the past, been more impactful than he was against the Rockets.
And now, he’ll have an entire offseason to figure out not just what happened, but what he needs to do to be more effective, more forceful, more dominant as a Jazz centerpiece. What he really needs to do is figure out what Rudy Gobert can be, should be. He needs to work on his strengths, and work on his strength. Gobert is known among his teammates to flex and check out his physique in the mirror after working out. What he should do is ignore the beach body and work on building power in his legs, butt and hips.
He is, after all, one of the Jazz’s pillars. He and Donovan Mitchell form the foundation upon which the Jazz hope to build for seasons to come, a premise with which he agreed, saying afterward: “We feel like we have so much room to grow. It’s exciting.”
He added: “It’s amazing.”
Gobert is the one who got so much of the credit since his return in January for the team’s turnaround. He is likely the NBA’s defensive player of the year.
Part of his being marginalized in the Houston series was not his fault. James Harden’s and Chris Paul’s moves toward the basket often left the Jazz center in a kind of no-man’s land, caught between stopping the aggressors and hanging back to protect the rim. If he moved forward, they dropped the ball off, and if he held his ground down low, they either stopped and popped or tear-dropped the Jazz to death.
“Houston is that good,” Quin Snyder said.
When Snyder was asked about the Gobert-Capela challenge after Game 4, he said:
“Part of it is just Rudy’s focus, Rudy’s concentration. He’s such a competitor, when things aren’t going his way, [he’s] just got to keep grinding. … Obviously, Capela has an impact on the game. It’s an excellent matchup, those two guys going against each other. Rudy has to just keep digging in.”
In Game 5, the Rockets’ firepower, triggered by Paul, overwhelmed not just Gobert, but also the perimeter defenders who were too easily shucked at the point of attack.
And then, at the offensive end, Gobert seemed, right there in the storied land of the legendary Dream Shake, to get his own quite different case of the shakes, sometimes unable to handle the ball the way he wants. Gobert will never have the sophisticated moves of Hakeem Olajuwon, but the rudimentary stuff, which he already seemed to have mastered, was washed out when uncertainty plagued him.
Moreover, the absence of Ricky Rubio hampered Gobert. Rubio’s targets into the low post, a skill it took him months to refine, were absent. And Gobert missed them.
Capela, meanwhile, set up by Harden and Paul, was one of the Rockets’ brightest stars — at both ends. In Game 5, he was less effective. Still, Snyder classified Capela’s impact on the series as “significant.” He praised the Houston big: “He’s [done] an excellent job protecting the rim with those blocks. On the offensive end, he really knows his strengths, the rolling obviously, but keeping balls alive on the offensive glass and doing a lot of good things.”
Then Snyder said: “He makes winning plays.”
In seasons and playoffs to come, that’s what the Jazz hope Gobert will do, conquering his own domain and consistently being the specialized force they believe he can be.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.