A fascinating subplot of the first-round playoff series between the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets is the positional matchup of centers Rudy Gobert and Nikola Jokic. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year being able to shut down his slick-passing, offense-initiating counterpart is the key to Utah being able to pull off the upset — or so the theory goes, anyway.
Gobert, for one, wasn’t buying into the mano-a-mano component ahead of Monday’s Game 1.
“He’s a very good player, but I believe that basketball is a team game. Like I always say, when I’m on the floor, I’m not just worried about one player, I’m worried about the whole team,” Gobert said. “… And they are a very, very good team. So we know that we’re going to need to do it together.”
It all sounds well and good and defensible and whatnot, but considering Jokic poured in 29 points and 10 rebounds on Monday, and worked the two-man game with Jamal Murray to perfection down the stretch in the Nuggets’ fourth victory over the Jazz in as many tries this year, what do Gobert and his Utah cohorts do now?
Well, first off, they’re not going to overreact to anything.
Actually, Jokic filling it up was not particularly unexpected to Gobert. He noted ahead of time, “The main thing is to make him work. If he’s going to score a lot of points, but he has to work for them and he doesn’t get his teammates involved, that might be a good option.”
And indeed, Jokic did finish with only three assists for the game.
Jazz coach Quin Snyder agreed after Tuesday’s practice that Gobert’s logic is on point, but that the team still has considerable work to do on that front.
“Rudy’s take on that is true. The fact that he’s saying that, he understands. Everybody’s got to contribute to that, it can’t just be Rudy,” Snyder said. “You’ve got to try to create some uncertainty to make them a little less comfortable. Understand that when we talk about, quote-unquote, ‘stopping Jokic’ here, that’s guarding Denver, because he does so many things. It’s not just him on the post, or him in a two-man game. He’s doing so many other things, passing the ball, and they obviously play off him.”
Swingman Joe Ingles, who was Murray’s primary defender down the stretch in Game 1, added that slowing Jokic probably has less to do with Gobert than it does with the Jazz’s perimeter defenders doing more to disrupt Jokic’s synergy with the Canadian guard.
“I think for overtime at the end of the fourth, they basically played that two-man game the whole time. So they’ve got the ball a lot, they play a lot of handoffs, they play a lot pick-and-roll, they try to force the switch,” he noted. “… Overall, for 48 minutes or 53 minutes [with overtime], whatever the game time is, we can do it for better and for longer. Obviously we’re capable of that — we’ve got a good team of defenders, we’re intelligent, so we know we can adjust, we can throw different things [out there].”
Of course, it’s not a one-way street. Part of making Jokic work harder entails making him defend Gobert a bit, too. The Frenchman finished with 17 points on 8-for-11 shooting in Game 1, and had some success rolling to the rim. Meanwhile, he only grabbed seven rebounds — a total Snyder attributed mostly to dearth of opportunity, considering the Nuggets shot 51.6% from the field and 53.7% beyond the arc.
Still, given that Utah remains without Bojan Bogdanovic for the entirety of the postseason, and without point guard Mike Conley for at least Wednesday’s Game 2, and given that Donovan Mitchell is unlikely to replicate his flame-throwing 57-point effort from Monday, that leaves the Jazz pretty much with the option of doing what they did once again, only better and for longer this time.
“I think we did a good job defensively protecting the basket. They hit a lot of tough shots, especially very late in the fourth and overtime. We’re going to watch film and see what we can do better to try to make it a little tougher on them, but I really liked the way we came out and we made them work for everything they got,” Gobert said.
Conley in, Bryant out?
Monday evening saw some good news for the Utah Jazz in terms of getting back a key component of the team. Tuesday afternoon, however, brought word of another impending significant loss.
The good news: point guard Mike Conley returned to the NBA bubble on Monday night with an eye toward being able to play by Game 3 of the first-round series against the Nuggets on Friday. The bad news: highly-regarded assistant coach Johnnie Bryant, renowned for his player development acumen, is reportedly set to leave the organization to take a promotion with the New York Knicks.
On the Conley front, the Jazz’s stating point guard left the team Sunday morning to return home to Columbus, Ohio for the birth of his third child, Elijah, who was born about two weeks ahead of schedule.
The NBA announced Wednesday that Conley will only have to re-quarantine in the league bubble for the minimum four-day period, provided he passes four league-issued COVID-19 tests. While that means he will definitely miss Wednesday’s Game 2 against the Nuggets, it potentially leaves the door open for a Game 3 return on Friday, provided his fourth negative test is processed and released prior to Friday’s tipoff.
As for Bryant, the 35-year-old University of Utah product joined the Jazz as a player development coach on Ty Corbin’s staff in 2012, and has become widely regarded for his talent in that area ever since. Former Jazz player Gordon Hayward widely credited Bryant with pushing him to All-Star status. And Bryant is the Jazz assistant on coach Quin Snyder’s staff who has worked most closely with All-Star Donovan Mitchell, moving his game forward.
Bryant, who will follow longtime Jazz VP of Player Personnel Walt Perrin to the Knicks, per a report from Shams Charania of The Athletic, is set to become Tom Thibodeau’s second-in-command, as associate head coach. The Jazz will not officially comment on the move until the Knicks announce it, but did confirm that Bryant will at least remain with Utah through the conclusion of their 2020 playoff run.