About 5 minutes into the third quarter of Monday night’s game at Vivint Arena, San Antonio’s Keldon Johnson received a pocket pass, made a short drive left, and quickly put up what he thought was a surefire layup.
Rudy Gobert suddenly emerged from behind, looming large, and swatted it off the backboard.
Spurs rookie Devin Vassell grabbed the loose ball, found Johnson in the left corner, and swung it to him for what should have been a 3-point try — except that Gobert’s quick closeout prevented him from launching it.
Johnson, apparently unnerved at this point, attempted one crossover dribble, then another, but could not shake the center. With the two-time Defensive Player of the Year sticking on him, Johnson finally attempted to drive baseline, dribbled the ball off his foot, then watching helplessly as it rolled out of bounds for a turnover.
On a night when the Utah Jazz’s offense was hardly its pyrotechnic self, Gobert’s paint protection proved a decisive force in their eventual 110-99 victory.
“Being able to have that tenacity, when some guys push the ball and they think they’re going to have an open layup and then all of a sudden they just get blocked, or they see me and they think that it might be better if they don’t shoot — I think it’s demoralizing,” Gobert said. “And for us, it does the opposite: we feed off that. And anytime there’s a play like that —whether it’s me or anyone else — it’s a momentum play.”
It wasn’t all him, of course.
The Spurs were on the second night of a back-to-back — having dropped an overtime decision to the Sixers in San Antonio on Sunday night. They were likely further worn out by their previous game — Friday night against the Celtics — also going to overtime.
Furthermore, the Spurs’ odd affinity for attacking almost exclusively in the midrange did them no favors.
Still, on the rare occasions they did venture toward the rim, they did not fare well — they didn’t get their first basket from close range until Dejounte Murray got a layup with 23.6 seconds remaining in the first half.
The Spurs wound up converting only 8 of 21 attempts from close range for the game.
And Utah wound up outscoring San Antonio 66-46 on points in the paint, in spite of the vast majority of the Spurs’ shots coming in the midrange.
Those third quarter stoppages were a great example of what they were up against.
And that may have only been his second-most impressive sequence of the night.
The Frenchman had another similar episode in the game’s first few minutes, as he found himself back defending a 2-on-2 fast break, but positioned himself in such a way as to force the initial would-be shooter to reconsider and pass, then re-positioned himself to dissuade the new would-be shooter too.
After the Spurs backed it out and reset, the big man began vigorously bobbing his head, the point having been made.
“It’s really crazy how good Rudy is defensively,” said rookie two-way guard Trent Forrest. “I mean, obviously, coming in my first year, I knew Rudy was a good defensive player, but seeing it up close, it’s really crazy how much he can change the game.”
He wound up being a force all over the court, finishing with 24 point (on 10-for-14 shooting), 15 rebounds, three blocked shots, and a pair of steals.
Coach Quin Snyder said afterward that he loved the job done by Gobert — as well as his backup, Derrick Favors — in navigating the tricky balance between their typical drop-big style simply guarding the rim and also stepping up to contest those myriad midrange looks.
“Rudy and Fav were actually up, as well, to contest those shots — that was something we felt like was important,” Snyder said. “… That’s something they do very well, so we had to be very aware of it and not just concede shots.”
Given the crazy shot profile San Antonio wound up with — especially before the break — it was perhaps o surprise that the Jazz surged to a 60-43 advantage at halftime.
And while they never truly erased the Spurs’ chances over the final 24 minutes, they did ultimately lead by as many as 25 and build a sufficient cushion that they were never close to challenged down the stretch.
As much as has been made of the Jazz’s offense this season, Gobert’s frequent refrain is that it’s their play on the other side that will ultimately determine their success.
On Monday night — with the Jazz now at 47-18 and at least temporarily back atop the Western Conference standings — his teammates were certainly believers.
“When we play defense like we played tonight,” said Bojan Bogdanovic, “we’re going to be in the game and have a chance to win the game against anybody.”