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The Triple Team: Both Rudy Gobert and Nikola Jokic were brilliant in Jazz vs. Nuggets matchup — but Gobert’s teammates were better

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, left, dunks as Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic defends in the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 125-102 win over the Denver Nuggets from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. A tale of two centers

Rudy Gobert scored 18 points (on 7-7 FG), had 19 rebounds, and finished as a +36 tonight.

Meanwhile, Nikola Jokic scored 25, had 15 rebounds, 14 assists, and finished as a +5.

It is wild that Jokic had a positive plus minus in a game that his team lost by 23, and in which he played 37 minutes — to do the obvious math, that means that the Nuggets were outscored by 28 in the 11 minutes that he wasn’t out there. To do the further obvious math, if they had lost by that much for a full 48 minutes, they’d lose by 122. I’d feel pretty confident in a good high school team being able to stop an NBA team from winning by 122 in an average game.

So, uh, big yikes, Denver’s bench. That’s been a trend for them and something that needs to be addressed immediately from a Nuggets perspective. There’s an extremely good case for Jokic to repeat as NBA MVP from these kinds of numbers alone, oh, and he’s also averaging an efficient 25/13/7.

But even more clear than Jokic’s case for NBA MVP is Gobert’s case for Utah’s MVP: +36 with him in the game, -13 in the 13 minutes he didn’t play. Once again, Gobert just changed everything for the Jazz on both ends of the floor: they scored 141 points per 100 possessions on offense and 98 points per 100 on defense.

You want to talk about him dominating small lineups? This is Gobert dominating small lineups.

Bat it out, get the ball back with a size advantage, dunk.

Even with Jokic in the game, competing is the key. He’s so good that he’s just going to make a ton of the floaters and push shots and wacky layups and off-balance stuff. But on the other end, you can attack him in pick and roll a little bit — though he’s definitely improved at this — and then take advantage of the ever-so-slight losses of focus.

And something like this is so good: a transition mismatch, so Gobert’s out on Aaron Gordon... but as soon as the ball comes in, Gobert comes back low into the post to get the block.

It’s good to have Gobert. Of course, you’d rather not have four losses. But on the plus side, Gobert’s case for a fourth Defensive Player of the Year trophy has been massively strengthened over the past week.

2. I liked the Jazz’s perimeter defense tonight

Just like in the Jazz’s last win, also against Denver, I really liked what they did on perimeter defense in tonight’s game. Some of the biggest offenders of awful defense during the 4-game losing streak had really bright moments and an overall higher level of play tonight.

I’m going to zoom in on Donovan Mitchell, because he’s the one who most had his reputation dinged over the last four games. And, in truth, he was up and down tonight, too.

But there were a lot of positive moments, more than you typically see from Mitchell.

Watch him on this play. When the Jazz double Jokic, he’s preventing the easy cut layup, and when Jokic does find the open man, he sprints out to the corner and closes out well.

In the third, he takes the switch on Will Barton, stays in front, and then stays vertical defensively inside to force the miss. Barton wants the foul... I don’t see one.

Here, in the fourth, he’s still engaged defensively, blows up the dribble handoff, and takes it the other way.

The Jazz are a noticeably better team when Mitchell is playing at this level defensively, making an impact here and there. And Gobert gave him credit.

“Every single guy locked in defensively. There were a few plays with Donovan defensively where twice, he defended with physicality, and went up with the ball,” Gobert said. “Just a great team effort, and that’s the team that we can be, and that’s the mindset that we need to have every single night.”

3. That was an important game to get

It’s an 82-game season, in a league where seeding is not all that important. So why did this game matter so much? It’s less about what happened in the case of a Jazz win than what would have happened in the case of a Jazz loss.

The last couple of days has been full of petty sniping back and forth in press conferences: first, Gobert noted how the Jazz didn’t have the winning habits of the teams above them in the Western Conference, the Warriors and the Suns. Then, he noted how impressed he was with Devin Booker’s defense with the Suns over the last couple of years. If you don’t think that’s a shot at Mitchell’s defense, well, I have a bridge to sell you, you poor gullible sweetheart.

But Mitchell (and Clarkson), who liked Gobert’s tweet, didn’t exactly come off any better. When they were asked about Gobert’s comments, they gave fairly passive-aggressive comments themselves. And honestly, the quotes from those two, while not benign in verbiage, undersold the annoyance that was apparent in their voices. Oh, and of course, there’s the fact that Gobert, at heart, was basically right about their defense — one way to get Gobert to stop being honest about the team’s bad defense is to just play better defense.

If they had lost that one, I think it gets more snippy. Someone would complain about how Gobert’s defense wasn’t enough against Jokic. Gobert would have to answer questions about why the team lost, and he would point to the lineups when he wasn’t on the floor.

This team is not exactly subtle with their emotions after a loss — and as we saw during the 4-game losing streak, there was a reluctance to take on personal responsibility for the team’s problems. As Jazz radio man David Locke pointed out, there’s a whole lot of “we need to get better” quotes, but not a lot of “I need to get better” said. A loss tonight would have pointed more towards the “something is permanently broken” side of things rather than “this is fixable.”

A win doesn’t solve everything, but it’s an important first step, a proof of concept. It gives everyone some feeling that this is going to be alright — sure, there are improvements to be made, but it’s not, to use a loaded word, unsalvageable.

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