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The Triple Team: Jazz limit Damian Lillard to just nine points in blowout win over Blazers

Rudy Gobert also shows off his versatility in season opener

The Portland Trail Blazers and The Utah Jazz play in front of fan cardboard cutouts in the stand during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Steve Dipaola)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 120-100 win over the Portland Trail Blazers from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Jazz contain Damian Lillard

For only the second time in the last four years, Damian Lillard scored less than 10 points. Overall, Lillard had nine, on 4-12 shooting from the field.

It was just a masterful job of focusing on an opponent’s best player in order to really short-circuit a team’s offense. While every team has Lillard at the top of their scouting report, the Jazz executed a defensive gameplan to perfection, leaving Lillard off-balance early and not letting the run get going late.

In particular, Rudy Gobert has become really good at staying up high on pick and rolls, generally scaring guards who like to shoot the pull-up three, forcing the drive, and then recovering. This basket by Lillard actually goes in for two of his nine points, but it is a really difficult layup over Gobert — most of the time, Lillard opted to pull out or kick out instead.

Derrick Favors has always been good at this kind of pick and roll coverage, and he once again was tonight. I also think you have to give Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, and Royce O’Neale credit for staying attached to Lillard without fouling. Here, Conley has early arms on Lillard, but by the time he gets the ball and uses the screen, Conley’s pulled his hands back, leading to the goofy three with no foul involved.

Of course, with any night like this from a superstar, some of it is just a great player having a bad night. There was definitely an element of that from Lillard, who missed some threes and layups he might otherwise make. But the Jazz always were sending extra bodies, keeping relative containment, and then rotating out to shooters well, an that meant that points were hard to come by.

2. Gobert’s versatility

You don’t normally think of big men like Gobert having versatility. The big, lanky guy without many ball skills doesn’t usually see the word “versatile” next to his name; instead, that’s the switching, shooting, playmaking bigs.

But just look at this list of things Gobert did in one four-minute stretch in the third quarter tonight:

• He collected a Donovan Mitchell layup miss and easily finished at the rim.

• He stayed repeatedly up on the pick and roll, hampering Lillard at the perimeter, then recovered to defend the rim as well.

• He skied for an alley-oop that was thrown pretty far behind him, then guided it home.

• He found Mike Conley on a no look pass on a short roll, which resulted in an open corner three for Bojan Bogdanovic.

• He finished a roll play with an underhand, and-one layup under Jusuf Nurkic’s arm.

• He hammered down a dunk over the top of the Nurkic, another and-one.

You can fit those things into “boring normal big man stuff,” absolutely. But there’s also a lot of skills required there — touch around the basket, timing of when to follow Mitchell to the rim, knowledge of where your teammates are, and of course, aggressiveness on the roll to finish around Nurkic. This run really sealed the game, expanding the lead to over 30.

Gobert finished with 20 points and 17 rebounds in 28 minutes, his contribution even exceeded that.

3. 3-point barrage

The Jazz shot 50 threes tonight.

I don’t want every Triple Team to hammer on the 3-point shooting profligacy; it’d start to get boring if that’s all I wrote about. And yet, I also have to recognize that 50 threes is more threes than the Jazz have ever shot in a regulation game. Records being set are notable even if they are expected, given preseason and training camp points of focus.

They only made 19 of them, for 38% — which also happens to exactly match last year’s 3-point shooting percentage overall. In other words, their 20-point win wasn’t a hot shooting fluke, but instead was pretty much what you’d expect given those shots and who was shooting them. They could have had a poor shooting night, and still won the game; but the volume of attempted threes was enormously helpful in tilting the math in their favor.

While we’re at it, here are some more remarkable stats about the Jazz shooting 50 threes:

• John Stockton didn’t take his 50th three until the end of his third season, he didn’t make his 50th three until the end of his fifth season.

• Jazz broadcaster Ron Boone didn’t ever make more than fifty threes in a season; broadcaster Thurl Bailey took only 35 in his whole career. Matt Harpring came later as the 3-point shot was becoming more and more important — he didn’t make a combined 50 threes in his last six seasons of his career (46), while he made 1,557 2-point shots.

• Jeff Hornacek was famous for his 3-point shooting ability, but he only took about 17% of his shots as threes. On Wednesday, the Jazz took 53% of their shots from downtown.

• The following famous Jazzmen never made 50 threes in their Jazz careers: Shandon Anderson, Carlos Arroyo, Raul Lopez, Ronnie Brewer, Paul Millsap, Rickey Green, DeShaun Stevenson.

• The following Jazzmen never took 50 threes in their multi-year Jazz careers: Tyrone Corbin, Jeff Malone, Adrian Dantley, Antoine Carr, Andy Toolson.

Threes are fun! They’re also extremely powerful. It’s good basketball society has figured that out now.

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