Rudy Gobert, fresh out of COVID protocol, says Utah Jazz aren’t contenders right now due to their defense

After the Jazz’s defense cratered without their center, he said the team is not presently at a championship level, and lags behind some Western Conference contenders in terms of “winning habits.”

Utah Jazz's Rudy Gobert (27) talks to Rudy Gay during the first half of the team's NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs, Monday, Dec. 27, 2021, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)

Mired in the midst of a four-game losing streak defined by widespread player absences owing to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the Utah Jazz got some much-needed good news Friday morning: Rudy Gobert and Rudy Gay are back.

Both the All-NBA center and key free-agent addition had been in the NBA’s health and safety protocol after each testing positive for COVID-19.

Gobert missed the Jazz’s past five games, beginning in Denver on Jan. 5, when he was showing signs of illness but had thus far only returned a pair of negative rapid tests. He entered the protocol a day later when an overnight PCR test came back positive. He said he woke up in Denver feeling some cold symptoms and then developed a slight fever, but in spite of the PCR result coming back positive, he was feeling fine by the next day.

He did not feel the same about what he saw from the Jazz — specifically the defense — in his absence.

“When I watch some of these other teams, like the Suns or the Warriors, those guys are a step ahead of us in terms of winning habits. They take every game personally,” Gobert said. “Devin Booker is playing his a-- off defensively. I’ve been watching him compared to two years ago. Guys like that, they buy in, and you can tell they take pride in playing defense and stopping their man, doing whatever they can defensively to stop the other team and be part of a winning culture. I just think we’re not there yet, but I think we’re gonna get there.”

Gay, meanwhile, has missed three of the team’s past four games. The Jazz opted not to bring him to Toronto (along with most of their other rotation players) for fear of a positive test necessitating him having to quarantine in Canada. He then played in the Jazz’s next game, at Indiana. However, he subsequently missed Utah’s games against the Cavaliers and Pistons after entering the protocol over the weekend.

The Jazz’s frontcourt depth has been severely depleted during this stretch. Against the Nuggets, they were missing both Gobert and backup Hassan Whiteside, who was still recovering then from the effects of a concussion, and were forced to start little-played Udoka Azubuike. Then, against the Raptors, their big-man rotation consisted of Whiteside, 6-foot-6 Eric Paschall, and 10-day signee Norvel Pelle. In Indiana, both Whiteside and Gay played, but looked out of sorts throughout.

A day later, Gay was in the protocol, and a day after that, Azubuike joined him, leaving the Jazz with Whiteside, Paschall, and Pelle as their centers against the Pistons. Before the game against the Cavs, they learned Whiteside also had COVID-19, and Pelle was displaying symptoms. That led to the recently returned Joe Ingles being the team’s tallest player (6-8) for the Cleveland game.

During this stretch, with three-time Defensive Player of the Year Gobert sitting out, Utah’s defense has cratered. The Jazz have allowed 118.6 points per game over the five games, and have yielded a league-worst 120.8 defensive rating.

They allowed career-high scoring games by Domantas Sabonis (42, on 18-for-22 shooting) and rookie Cade Cunningham (29, on 10 of 17). They yielded triple-doubles to Fred VanVleet (who also scored 37 points) and Darius Garland. They enabled Saddiq Bey, who came in shooting 37% on the season, to drop in 29 points on 10-of-14 shooting, while the Pistons — who entered with the NBA’s lowest-rated offense — scored 78 second-half points on 59% shooting to rally from a 22-point deficit.

Gobert said that while the Cleveland game was something of an anomaly, just given Utah’s complete lack of available big men for that game, there was a pervasive theme through the rest of the four-game losing streak.

“You can feel that there was not much communication,” he said. “It’s not like we were choosing to give up something — we were giving up everything, and that’s what happens when you don’t communicate.”

The Frenchman then reverted to talking about habits, and noted how imperative it is for the Jazz to work on theirs now.

After all, he pointed out, this is not a team that can get to the playoffs, then flip a switch and start communicating, or seeing defenders suddenly stay in front of their man, or start controlling the defensive glass.

From that perspective, he’s hoping that some good comes from this losing streak, that it perhaps pulled back the curtain on some flaws that, having had a light shone on them, can now be better addressed.

“As a competitor, it’s never easy to watch your teams lose games. But I do think that sometimes when you go through tough times as a team, down the stretch it can make you better,” Gobert said. “That stretch is gonna make us better down the road. Maybe if we win that Detroit game or that Pacers game, we don’t really highlight as much of the things that we need to get better at in order to be at that championship level. Right now, we are not at that championship level. Sometimes you need a tough stretch to remind you of that, and for us to dig even deeper and work on our habits.

“… These stretches where it stings and really hurts are gonna help us build those habits,” he added. “If we want to be a championship team, it was a perfect thing that happened to our team.”

The Jazz’s next game is Sunday at Denver, and Gobert said that he expects to play.