Utah Jazz love Nikola Jokic’s game and hate having to face it

The reigning MVP and his Denver Nuggets teammates visit Vivint Arena on Tuesday night. Ahead of the matchup, the Jazz explained what they’re up against.

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, left, drives to the basket as Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, front right, and center Rudy Gobert defend in the second half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Given that Rudy Gobert is an admittedly prideful basketball player, you might suppose he would take umbrage with fellow center and division rival Nikola Jokic earning Most Valuable Player honors this past season, in spite of the Denver Nuggets finishing a full five games back of the Utah Jazz in the season standings.

You’d be wrong, though.

“He was MVP for a reason. He had my vote for MVP,” Gobert acknowledged this week. “Yeah, he’s a unique player, he’s one of kind.”

What exactly made him Gobert’s MVP choice, though?

“He carried his team throughout the season. And he was the most impactful player, definitely, last year throughout the regular season,” Gobert explained. “I don’t even know if he missed a game. Maybe one. People don’t realize how hard it is to do it without taking games off, to carry the load every night for your team. Their other best player [Jamal Murray] gets hurt and he’s able to keep them afloat — it was a great season for him.”

All that said, Gobert being the prideful player that he is, he’s especially looking forward to Tuesday’s matchup against Jokic and the Nuggets at Vivint Arena.

And the rest of the Jazz are eager for it, too.

“His skillset is amazing, so it’s another matchup that’s going to be fun — the MVP of the league against the best defensive player in the league,” Bojan Bogdanovic said after Tuesday’s practice session.

While the 2-0 Jazz legitimately believe they can compete with any team in the league, they also all expressed great respect for the Nuggets in general and Jokic in particular.

Coach Quin Snyder pointed out that “what makes his skillset so unique is his size” — explaining that, at 6-foot-11 and 284 pounds, the Serbian has the court vision and passing skills of a point guard, the driving and lane-penetration ability of a wing, in addition to the post moves and counters of a traditional big, calling his turnaround jumper “virtually unblockable.”

Add it all up, and the Jazz are presented with a formidable-if-enjoyable foe.

“He’s unique. I love him,” said Snyder. “I don’t know if you’re allowed to kind of have a favorite player or things like that as a coach, and there’s probably a few of them, but he’s one of the guys that I really enjoy watching. I don’t enjoy scouting him as much!”

Utah’s players and coaches have seen enough video at this point to know it’s a predictably miserable experience.

What they keep coming back to in the end, is the center’s exquisite passing.

“Amazing basketball IQ; he’s making everybody better around him,” said Bogdanovic. “We might need to throw different looks and different defenses on him to slow him down. And no matter what you do, he’ll find a way to find the basket or find his teammates.”

Gobert drove the point home, noting that Jokic is such a difficult matchup precisely because of his multifaceted game.

“He’s one of kind. For me, it’s always a great challenge — for me and for the team — to go against somebody like that,” he said. “And yeah, the passing — it’s easier to guard a great scorer, but to have to guard a guy who can score and can create for his teammates, it makes you have to be a little more cautious when you want to help. So it’s a lot of responsibility on me.”

Snyder can’t argue with much of that, noting that Jokic and the Nuggets are so lethal offensively because of his ability to see over the top of and exploit double-teams by finding cutters and utilizing his teammates’ size, as well.

That said, he would perhaps tweak just one of Gobert’s words.

“I don’t want Rudy to be ‘cautious,’ I want him to be disciplined,” Snyder said. “There’s a lot of possessions where you have that expression, ‘Good defense, better offense’ — that happens a lot with [Jokic]. But if you can say you played good defense, that in and of itself is where you have to be.”