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The Triple Team: Rudy Gobert’s ubiquitous defensive presence; Mike Conley’s veteran savvy help Jazz escape with win vs. Cleveland

Utah Jazz's Mike Conley (11) drives against Cleveland Cavaliers' Darius Garland (10) and Kevin Love (0) in the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 109-108 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Rudy Gobert an absolute defensive monster in the final few minutes.

For the first few weeks of the season, I didn’t think Rudy Gobert was playing at his best. He was playing fundamentally sound defense, and still contesting a decent number of shots, but sometimes wasn’t necessarily as much of a force on defense as he can be.

This was a statement from Gobert. At the end of this game, he was everywhere, making game-changing play after game-changing play.

I mean, look at all he has to do on this one. Oh, just come over and prevent a rolling Evan Mobley from rolling all the way to the rim, intercept his lob pass, contest a hook shot and force it to miss, prevent a tip-in basket, go after the loose ball, recover to get a second block on Garland as he rolls down the rim, save the ball from going out of bounds, then switch back to his spot in the paint when the Cavs reset.

It’s just a crazy level of defensive impact: no one else in the world is doing all of that. You might even be most impressed with his conditioning, as Nate Duncan was here, to be able to make all of those plays late in the game in one spurt.

Of course, that wasn’t all, because Gobert also got offensive rebounds on the other end, then dunked over Jarrett Allen; and picked up yet another block with about a minute left to go.

Again, after that slow start, he’s back atop the defensive leaderboards. He’s defending 18.3 shots per game, No. 1 in the NBA. And on those shots he’s defending, players are shooting only 38.7% — a miniscule number.

He’s so good — one of the best defensive players of all time, and an absolute delight to watch.

2. Some small ball lessons

Hassan Whiteside was out of tonight’s game due to a left glute contusion — in other words, a bruised butt.

So that meant, for the second time this season, the Jazz would need to fill those minutes without Gobert by playing a relatively small lineup. This time, though, they just played Rudy Gay at the center, rather than Eric Paschall. How did it go? To be honest, much more effectively than they did with Paschall.

The Jazz had a 110 offensive rating and a 114 defensive rating, so pretty darn near average. Naturally, you’d be worried about rebounding with that lineup, but the Jazz actually outrebounded the Cavs during those 10 minutes, getting 41% of their offensive rebounds while letting the Cavs get 33% of them.

They switched on defense, and made fewer mistakes in executing those switches, so that’s good. I don’t think the defense was that strong, though. Take this possession: I understand that Ricky Rubio is not an incredible 3-point shooter, but he is making 35% of them this season. I thought Rudy Gay could have been more forceful in defending here. Jazz get a little lucky on the two missed threes.

To his credit, Jordan Clarkson does try to box out on that possession above, but he’s just a slightly-built human. That’s something that head coach Quin Snyder points out about his small lineups frequently — most of the successful small-ball lineups have only one slight guard in the mix, but the Jazz always have at least two on the floor, making it harder to switch and rebound.

On offense, they made Royce O’Neale the most frequent screener, rather than the much bigger Gay. And not only did he screen, he rolled towards the rim rather than pop out for three. That meant he had a lot of situations where he had to decide what to do with the ball around the free-throw line, and I thought he made a lot of good decisions.

Or, you know, you can just have Gay pick and pop.

In other words, not great, but good enough to keep the Jazz in the game. The small-ball lineup is not a weapon right now, and I’m not sure it ever will be. But “decent enough” is progress.

3. The benefits of experience on the final play

Mike knew.

J.B. Bickerstaff was his head coach in Memphis for two seasons, and an assistant for two more. So he had a pretty good idea of what Bickerstaff was going to throw out as the Cavs tried to win the game on the game’s final possession.

“I’ve known J.B as a head coach for a while and I knew that there was going to be some kind of a slip screen, and him getting downhill to his right,” Conley said.

So with the knowledge of what’s coming, watch the last play, when that slip screen comes.

Mike doesn’t buy it for a second. He just stays in front of Garland, short circuits everything. In the end, Garland has to come back up top and just take a contested 30-footer. Ballgame.

I continue to believe that Conley is the Jazz’s best defensive choice against guards. While he’s short, his defensive acumen and smarts just means that he’s able to contain the ball more often than Donovan Mitchell is, and he’s able to slide alongside guards better than the bigger O’Neale.

Last year, Conley had some of the best plus-minus numbers in the NBA, besides Gobert. And while Gobert does deserve a lot of credit for Conley’s success, they make a good tandem. Because Conley is able to stay in front, or at least maintain connection to the opposition, Gobert isn’t asked to do everything.

Conley’s experience and Gobert’s brilliance turns out to be a pretty potent combination.

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