Rudy Gobert was dominant in Game 2 of the Utah Jazz’s Western Conference second-round series vs. the Los Angeles Clippers, highlighted by his roaming the paint in reaffirming his status as NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
Then, things changed.
In Game 3, Clippers head coach Ty Lue went smaller. Ivica Zubac, more of a traditional “old-school” big man, went to the bench in favor of veteran 6-foot-8 stretch forward Nic Batum, who has shown a willingness throughout his career to step out to the 3-point line.
For Gobert, that defensive assignment meant Batum was going to drag him out to the perimeter, not allowing him to simply camp out in the lane and swat, or at least redirect, those Clippers bold enough to challenge him at the rim.
That move by Lue worked, so he kept going to it throughout the remainder of the series. Gobert kept struggling with it and ultimately, it was one of a multitude of reasons why the Jazz are finished for the season following a 131-119 loss in Game 6 late Friday night at a full-capacity Staples Center.
“I just try to do what I’m supposed to, which is when someone’s getting beat on the perimeter, I have to have his back,” said Gobert, who took a hard fall late in the first quarter and exited for a short period, but still managed to play 42 minutes in Game 6. “When we are about to fully rotate, we do, but sometimes spacing doesn’t allow it, I have to make a decision of either staying with my guy and giving up a layup, or helping and giving away a potential 3.”
Gobert may have had one of the more statistically-dominant regular-seasons of all-time on defense, but his ineffectiveness as a small-ball defender was glaring in Games 3-6, with things coming to a peak in Game 6.
Clippers shooters were 12-for-16 from the floor on Friday night when Gobert was the primary defender, much of that coming from the perimeter with the Clippers’ rotation only going six-deep, with all six players capable of hitting jumpers. Keep in mind, none of those six Clippers was Kawhi Leonard, who remained out on Friday with a sprained right knee suffered in Game 4.
As Gobert alluded to, that left him in tough spots all night in terms of closing out on shooters, and cracking back towards the rim to help on would-be drivers who had beaten Jazz defenders. The Clippers were happy to drive, kick, and have a ton of open looks all night.
That small-ball lineup scored 80 points over the final 22 minutes after the Clippers were down as many as 25 early in the third quarter. Second-year guard Terance Mann, starting in place of Leonard for the second-straight game, scored 39 points on 15-for-21 shooting and 7-for-10 from deep.
With the Clippers bombing away and Gobert struggling mightily, Jazz coach Quin Snyder never saw fit to sit Gobert and go smaller in an effort to defend that Clippers lineup.
“They were spacing around, but the consistent thing is, we’re trying to protect the rim,” Snyder said. “You’re hoping that some of those 3s you can get contested, but they were late contests and they were making them. We’ll watch the film and we’ll kick ourselves that there were things we wanted to do more or better. Hats off to then for the kind of night they had in terms of driving the ball, kicking it, and shooting it.”