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The Triple Team: Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell remind everyone of how good they can be — and how fun they are to watch

The Utah Jazz starters looked ready for the regular season in Monday’s tuneup against New Orleans

New Orleans Pelicans guard Tomas Satoransky, foreground, goes to the basket as Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, top, defends in the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game Monday, Oct. 11, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 127-96 win over the New Orleans Pelicans from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Man, it’s just fun to watch Rudy Gobert

Do you guys play video games?

The most fun I ever have when I play video games is when I’m just exploring what’s possible and fulfilling my imagination. When playing NASCAR games, what happens when I drive backwards? When playing those adventure games, what happens if I try to chop down this tree with this sword? When playing FIFA, can I dribble down the whole pitch and score with my goalkeeper?

And in NBA2K: what happens if I try to make Rudy Gobert my point guard, have him do bunch a dribble moves by pushing the right stick in ways I don’t understand, and try to shoot over people — Irving, Iverson, Crawford style?

Well, folks, I saw what happens with my own two eyes, yesterday. For some reason, and that reason is probably just because he wanted to be a goofball, Gobert was paired with Mike Conley and Royce O’Neale in yesterday’s shooting contests. We’ve all seen Gobert just shoot standstill threes — it’s still fun. Yesterday’s contest began with that, and then some threes on the move, as my beat partner Eric Walden got on camera.

But Eric didn’t record the best part. After this, the group started to practice iso moves into 3-point shots, being defended by assistant coach Lamar Skeeter starting a few feet out from the arc. Conley is obviously very good at this, and O’Neale somewhat less good but still very capable.

Then it was Gobert’s turn, and he went into his bag. Folks, it was magical. He did behind-the-back and between-the-legs crossovers, chaining them together. He did spin moves into stepbacks. He spun into the defender, the wrong way, then stepped back into threes, shot with way too much vertical leap on the shot that, frankly, he doesn’t need to get. He was wildly mashing the buttons to his own controller. And he even made a few of his crazy looks! It was the most fun I’ve ever had watching an end-of-practice drill, because it was just so imaginative.

The next day, Monday, I watched him be the best player on the floor of an NBA preseason game, using absolutely nothing even in the vicinity.

Instead, Gobert was just dominant at the things that are so boring that you can’t even control them in a video game. After last week’s festival of missed and ineffective screens from Hassan Whiteside and Udoka Azubuike, Gobert came in and just unremarkably nailed every screen set, creating big gaps of separation for his teammates. The comparison served to highlight just how good he is at this very boring thing, but how big of a difference he makes.

He was in great position on both ends. Where ‘Dok and Hassan can’t seem to get out of the way, Gobert screens, then runs wide, forcing one defender to guard two completely ineffectively. He scored 19 points tonight, including some beautiful and-one finishes through a recovering defender’s frantic contact. On defense, he’s still just absolutely bonkers: the Pelicans scored 66 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor. He had two blocks, but mostly, it was just his perfect placement that ruined the attackers’ day.

He was a +37 in 23 minutes on the floor. That’s ridiculous, even if the game’s in October. It was not video game material, but it was dominant. And, I have to be honest, it was also incredibly fun to watch.

This season’s going to be a little exhausting, I fear — even if the Jazz win 60 games, no one will be impressed until playoff success follows. But on this night that mattered even less than the regular season will, Gobert gave us a reason to watch this year: excellence in action.

He showed off what he can do. Or some of it, anyway.

2. Donovan Mitchell’s defense

Donovan Mitchell had four steals and three blocks in his 29 minutes on the court tonight, and generally looked to be trying to set a tone on the defensive end.

This was the most impressive sequence:

You can see Mitchell just jogging back at first after the steal, but around the halfcourt line, he realizes: the opponent has a 3-on-1 — and he can do something about it. Block, deflection, and magnificent save to Gobert follows.

Here’s another steal. He’s defending on the perimeter, trying to prevent Kira Lewis Jr. from using the screen very exaggeratedly. In doing so, he gives up a 2-on-1. This is only acceptable if Mitchell busts back to intercept the pass, which he does:

One more: you can see how much Mitchell is trailing on this play, forcing him to go all out on the closeout. But he takes two very intimidating closeout steps, forces, the drive, then stays with it to eventually get the strip-block.

You can see some commonalities here! Maybe some slack given on the defensive end at first, but timed bursts of energy to make big defensive plays — almost like a safety in football. Given Mitchell’s incredible wingspan and athleticism, he has the chance to make some big plays in this way, but it is playing with fire a little bit.

Still, the energy is promising. After the game, Mitchell, Gobert, and head coach Quin Snyder all liked Mitchell’s defensive effort, and talked about how important it is to get tonight’s level of defensive effort through an 82-game season.

“It’s unbelievable what he can do. And if he does that for us, we’re going to be even better,” Gobert said, while describing Mitchell’s 3-on-1 block. “But it’s not easy. It’s about doing ... what we think is really important, and then trying to do it even on the nights when you’re tired.”

That’s going to be the key question: can Mitchell keep up better defensive effort for 82 games? We’ll see. But tonight’s performance was a good start.

3. Two rotation notes

First, I thought it was notable Quin Snyder kept with last year’s formula of pulling Conley and Gobert early in the first and third quarter so they could play against the bench unit. Those Conley/Gobert lineups against bench players were just absurdly dominant last year, and were a big part of the Jazz’s regular season success. Keeping them seems good.

But figuring out how to make the non-Conley/Gobert minutes neutral or positive is going to be the tricky thing. Mitchell’s usage is sky-high in those lineups, and that figures to continue. But they have to get some easy baskets sometimes from, say, Joe Ingles or Bojan Bogdanovic in those lineups, too.

Snyder tried both Hassan Whiteside and Eric Paschall in that center role with Gobert on the bench. Paschall offered better screening, shooting, and spacing, but no rim protection. Whiteside offered that in spades, plus much better rebounding, but detracted in other ways.

There’s a good chance that’s a real battle for playing time. If egos were removed, I’d probably keep it matchup dependent: how good is the opposing guard at attacking the rim, and how much of a shooting threat is the opposing center?

In reality, I expect Whiteside to at least get 20 or so games to learn the system and show what he can do. He is the higher upside option, no doubt. Paschall is Mitchell’s best friend, but also less physically imposing than Whiteside. But should the former Miami center fail, Paschall could usurp that role, or Rudy Gay could play some small-ball five as well.

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