The Triple Team: Rudy Gobert’s defensive presence stifles the Cavs to second-lowest NBA scoring total this season

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder talks with Utah Jazz guard Joe Ingles (2) as they leave the court for a timeout as the Utah Jazz host the Cleveland Cavaliers, Mar. 29, 2021 at Vivint Arena.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 114-75 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Rudy Gobert is such a scary human to teams

75 points is tied for the second-lowest scoring total in the NBA this year. Only the Clippers, in their ugly 50-point loss to Dallas early in the season, have scored less this season. It wasn’t just a pretty good defensive performance, but a great one.

That’s because, essentially, the Cavs were unable to find anything at all against this Jazz defense. It’s not a very strong Cavs team that the Jazz were playing, but the Jazz have had some trouble at times this season against scoring guards like Collin Sexton and Darius Garland.

So what was the difference tonight? I watched the tape. The real answer is that Gobert just repeatedly scared the daylights out of everyone on their roster.

Like, here. Garland is so hyper terrified of Gobert coming at his layup, even though Gobert was at the top of the key when he began his drive, that he releases his layup opportunity from eight feet away, outside of the paint. An easy shot becomes a hard one, and it rims out.

This play cracked me up. Lamar Stevens passes up the open three because he’s afraid Gobert is going to block it, tries to pump-fake in a ridiculous situation, then spins and shoots the stepback fadeaway airball from 12 feet cause he’s trying to loft it over Gobert.

Of course, there are also the situations in which the player does the shot that he thinks is the one that isn’t going to get blocked by Gobert... and then it gets blocked anyway. This Sexton pull-up is easily dealt with.

The Cavs scored 67 points per 100 possessions with Gobert in the game. They made six of the 22 shots he contested, according to Ben Dowsett. It’s just ridiculous.

“I don’t know what word you’d use for it, but the gravity that Rudy has as a defender with keeping guys out of the paint is one that is — like one I’ve never seen,” Georges Niang said about his teammate. “It’s realistically the way we play defense is, if your guy does beat you, you continue to stay on his hip — and good luck.”

I know I write about Gobert really frequently, but he is the biggest reason the Jazz win so many games. They’d win this one without him — the Cavs are bad — but they’d win by 10 instead of 40. He’s. Just. So. Good.

2. Other defense stuff

But when I asked Gobert what the difference was in tonight’s game, he didn’t say “well, a typically sensational performance from me.”

He said: communication and transition defense. Those are good answers too, albeit perhaps not as entertaining as option No. 1.

First, communication. The Jazz did a really nice job of figuring out how to contain Sexton and Garland, then also prevent everyone else on the Cavs from getting anything at all. This play was a nice example where Donovan Mitchell was actually the Jazz’s paint protector because of the Cavs’ unique set-up, but he did well at reading the play, staying in front, and forcing a tough look in the end.

The only exception was a mid-3rd quarter flurry where the Jazz allowed a few backdoor cuts to cut their lead to 26. Quin Snyder called timeout, and everything was fixed. The Jazz then went on a 17-0 run to end the quarter.

The transition defense was really special, though. According to Synergy Sports, the Cavs pushed the ball up the floor 25 times tonight. They scored 12 points on those possessions. It’s hard to do that poorly, but the Jazz got back and in a defensive matchup most of the time. Even when there was a switch, the Jazz’s players showed an ability to stay in front of the guards.

Again, some of that is the Cavs’ unique weaknesses tonight: so long as you got back to prevent the layup in transition, the open three wasn’t too dangerous, because it was probably someone like Isaac Okoro taking it. But 75 points allowed is 75 points allowed, and it wasn’t *just* Gobert responsible for the team success.

3. Third-unit thoughts

Let’s talk about the Jazz’s third team, since they’ve gotten a lot of playing time recently, and it’s been a few months since we caught up with them in the third Triple Team point. Snyder is usually pretty slow to play them, but with a 38-point lead, even he emptied the benches with 10 minutes left to play.

Miye Oni remains the obvious bright star of the bunch: he’s the best athlete of the group, makes the right play most often, is the best defender, and if he hits the 3-point shot consistently, he’s going to make eight figures per year one day. If he doesn’t, he’ll be a fringe guy. Shooting is important.

Beyond that, though, the Jazz’s third unit is a little bit of a mixed bag. I think it’s fair to be somewhat disappointed Jarrell Brantley hasn’t shown an ability to do more in his second season, though he’s a guy that clearly misses G-League minutes. I’m not sure how he’s gotten better, though, as of right now. I still love Juwan Morgan’s ability to do the exact right thing all the time, but the athleticism limitations are real: he’ll need to shoot better or become an excellent perimeter defender too to be a rotation player on a good team.

Trent Forrest is fun, because he’s a talented passing point guard who can defend. He can’t shoot at all, though, and honestly, it’s hard to find rotation point guards in the league who can’t shoot that aren’t elite at another skill (Ben Simmons, Russell Westbrook, Ricky Rubio, etc.) I saw a Facebook Jazz fan say that he could be the starting point guard of the future... that person was wrong. But could be a backup one day? I could see it.

Elijah Hughes feels pretty promising to me, just because he can score, looks to pass first, and doesn’t look like a catastrophe on defense. Again, to be a rotation guy, he probably has to be a knockdown shooter or a stronger defender, but I could see it happening.

I do think Matt Thomas and Rudy Gobert minutes could be fun. Ersan Ilyasova looks either rusty or old, it’s too soon to say which. Udoka Azubuike is hurt.

I think it’s a real shame that we only got a 15-game G-League bubble, because I would have loved to see what Brantley, Forrest, and Hughes could have done with more time. Alas, it wasn’t to be.