Nobody was quite sure the Jazz could sweep consecutive games in the Grind House, if that’s still what they call the FedEx Forum, in their playoff series with the Memphis Grizzlies.
Check that, change it from could to would.
There’s a big difference there — could was a given, would was a guess — but not one that ended up mattering all that much in this rush of a best-of-seven affair.
What everybody was sure of is that if the Jazz could or would take Game 4, Rudy Gobert could and would play a pivotal role in the achievement.
And that’s precisely what occurred on Monday night, the Jazz grabbing their third consecutive victory, 120-113, pushing Memphis to the edge of elimination heading back to Salt Lake City for the fifth and possibly determinative game.
It was weird how it happened, but it did happen, Gobert scoring all of one point in the first half, taking just two shots. But then, the Jazz big went big in the second, going for 16 points, working to get open and finishing or getting fouled when the ball came his way.
During a postseason in which the Jazz have their eyes set on something more than nibbling at the apple, more than any kind of short run, an abbreviated path to what comes next is helpful to them, although the last time the team made it to the NBA Finals, in 1998, during which it found a groove, going 8-1 through the middle stages, it was pushed to a 4-3 first-round challenge by the Houston Rockets.
How does that affect or apply to Gobert and Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley and the rest in this moment?
Not at all.
The Jazz want their early business tucked away and done, ASAP.
And they could and would accept a bit of smooth sailing over a stretch of potentially rough waters. And that’s what they got, taking a 3-1 lead now heading home.
Gobert was the rudder.
Mitchell and Conley the tillers, along with a handful of others.
On Monday night, at the end, a favorable wind was a ’blowin’.
It wasn’t so much the numbers that Gobert put up, which could and would have been enough for a normal player. He was a reminder down the stretch to Grizzly defenders that as much as they wanted and needed to focus on Mitchell (30 points) and Conley (11 points, two massive 3-pointers and a hugely important steal from Ja Morant in the fourth quarter, and seven assists), destroyers to be sure, but down low was a force they couldn’t afford to neglect. Or was it wouldn’t?
When the Grizzlies crowded him, it opened up the floor for Jazz shooters. When the Grizz crowded the perimeter, it opened up Gobert to take outside feeds for baskets in close. And when the Jazz needed a boost early in the third quarter in a tightening game, the man from France was there for them.
First, Gobert went one-on-one against Jonas Valanciunas, pulling off a sweet spin move for a layup. Next, he took a pass from Mitchell for a layup. Then came a flush by Gobert on a pass from Bojan Bogdanovic, giving the Jazz a 68-60 lead.
Through a competitive game straight until the end, Gobert was the Frack to the shooters’ Frick.
“The main thing for me, is when we move the ball … guys are going to find me,” he said. " … We did a great job of doing that in the second half.”
He added: “We find the open man.”
To that extent, as Mitchell put it, “We won the game mentally.”
The biggest moment for Gobert came in the most fundamental of circumstances, when with 45 seconds left, the Jazz holding onto a six-point lead, he was fouled and sent to the free-throw line. The stripe, a place that once was a complete adventure for him, felt comfortable here, as he calmly stepped up and hit two shots which sealed the outcome.
Speaking of those foul shots, Gobert said afterward: “I work on them every day.”
It showed in this fourth game, as he hit seven of nine attempts.
At the other end … yeah, where Mr. Gobert has made his name and framed his game and gained his fame, he was a presence that could and would not be forgotten.
The Grizzlies, who have manufactured more points in their half-court offense in this series than might have been expected, their preference most definitely being early and easy transition baskets, looked to be fully aware that Gobert was always there, handling his duties against Valanciunas, but also roaming around to complicate the lives of everybody else.
Memphis had good success in the paint, but that typically came from perimeter defenders losing their guard responsibility, leaving Gobert to cover two, sometimes three players at once. He’s shown he can do that, at times, but he can’t guard everyone.
That said, it’s downright comical to watch ball-handlers do their work, dribbling toward the rim, searching as they usually do for a shot, only to remind themselves midway through that the best defender on the planet lingers nearby, reversing, dribbling right back out again to reset the attack.
Every pro player hates getting his shot blocked, seeing it as some sort of affront to their entire existence, a personal embarrassment.
Ja Morant is one of the best point guards in the league, a rare talent who can stop short and float a squib shot up, up, up and over Gobert. He did that Monday night, scoring 23 points on an inefficient percentage, making just eight of 21 shots.
Gobert went ahead and blocked two shots, but the number of dissuasions was considerably higher. That’s the effect of Gobert, whose extended arm might as well have had a broom attached to it, at least for the two-game set in Memphis.
When Gobert plays the way he did in the third and fourth quarters of Game 4, ruling the floor, the long-ago memory of him as a rookie, as the Jazz were losing back then, comes to mind, him sitting in front of his locker after a game in which he was barely called upon to contribute, idling the postgame away with an expression on his face that screamed, “Hey, when you dopes are done fiddle-faddling around, and ready to start playing real defense, when you want to start winning, I’m here. Use me, I’m here.”
Those were formative days, back when Gobert was not yet completely Gobert, but the work he put in to make himself what he is now, and the coaches who helped him do that, were rewarded, as they have been many times since, on Monday night.
And the Jazz now are on the brink of getting to the playoffs’ second round, yes, with more swinging of the hammer yet to do at Vivint Arena.
As MItchell did his thing, and Conley did his, too, along with Bogdanovic, who scored 13 points and Jordan Clarkson, who went for 24, and those Jazz shooters combined to hit 50 percent of their 3-pointers, they all know who’s at the center of so much accomplishment.
They all figured they could sweep the Grizzlies off their grinding floor in Memphis, and head home to close out a deal they did not close out in last year’s playoffs, but the tall dude who switched the could to would is … well, You Know Who.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.