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Is Rudy Gobert’s big night an indication the Jazz are learning how to punish teams that go small?

Center went 8 for 11 both from the field and from the line in scoring a season-high 24 points, and both he and his teammates noted that there’s an increased confidence all-around in feeding him the ball.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) muscles through Detroit Pistons guard Cory Joseph (18) and Detroit Pistons forward Kelly Olynyk (13) in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and Detroit Pistons at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022.

Though Rudy Gobert’s biggest value remains being the centerpiece of his team’s defense, he has never been shy about expressing himself when he feels like he’s being underutilized offensively by the Utah Jazz. Meanwhile, his critics have never been shy about pointing out that his offensive skillset hasn’t ever developed to the point that he can consistently punish opponents for deploying small-ball lineups against him.

Except … Friday night’s victory over the Detroit Pistons sure looked a lot like Gobert was effectively making them pay.

The big man racked up 11 field-goal attempts and 11 free-throw attempts (and made eight of each) on his way to a season-high 24 points.

Asked if he feels he and the team have gotten better at capitalizing on those scenarios, Gobert answered affirmatively.

“I think so. I think so,” he said. “I learn from those situations and I’m able to get better.”

Point guard Mike Conley, who often plays with Gobert alongside a trio of reserves against opponents’ second units, and so has developed a tight on-court chemistry with him, said he’s seen definitive progress from the center in this regard.

He noted that Gobert is now much-improved at catching the ball, especially from different angles, and that he’s better than he used to be at adjusting to off-target entry passes. Conley also praised the big man’s recognition of the need to keep the ball high after catching it, and not giving defenders an opportunity to strip it away by bringing it down low. Gobert is also much-improved as a passer, and has been good about kicking the ball back out when he locates open shooters.

“We tell him all the time if he can get good position down low, especially deep position under the rim, where he can have his hands high and turn and finish, that’s the ideal position we want to try and get him the ball,” Conley said. “And we’ll do that as much as we can. We really do try to look for it. And teams try to take it away by helping on the weakside, and we end up skipping it for an open 3. So even with that, he ends up bringing help in that situation.”

Of course, given the Jazz’s recent struggles — even with their win against the Pistons, they’re still in a down stretch and have lost six of eight — everything gets put a bit more under the microscope, and many are asking if the Jazz aren’t doing themselves a disservice by not feeding the beast more consistently.

After all, Gobert is averaging a career-high 16.0 points per game on a career-best and league-leading 71.4% shooting. He’s also increasingly making teams pay for fouling him, shooting a career-best 68.8% on a career-high 6.9 free-throw attempts.

But there were several times against Detroit when he appeared to flash open down the lane, or seemed to have a smaller defender such as Kelly Olynyk or Trey Lyles sealed off, only to not get an entry pass from a teammate, leaving fans at Vivint Arena howling at the prospect of missing out on a surefire bucket.

Despite such instances, the Jazz made it a point to note that they’re actually being very aggressive about putting him in good scoring situations.

“We’re trying so hard to get him the ball. Sometimes at the expense of other things,” said coach Quin Snyder. “… I don’t know if our guys can be any more committed to getting him the ball. And I know that’s something he appreciates.”

Both Snyder and Conley added that the Jazz must remain judicious about how and when they throw it into Gobert. The coach, addressing the criticism that teammates still miss Gobert too often, brought up several specific instances — sometimes where one or two potential help-side defenders were actually in better position to recover to the big man than they appeared to be; others where the timing between the ball-handler being ready to pass and Gobert being ready to receive was just a little bit off.

“We want to give Rudy the ball in situations to be most successful,” Snyder said. “And oftentimes, if he’s got a small on him, and it’s a singular thing, let’s get it to him. But once we’ve ball-faked twice, there’s a reason we haven’t passed it to him.”

Still, they believe a genuine effort is being made to get Gobert more involved.

“We are trying to find a way to reward Rudy, to put the ball in his hands,” said forward Bojan Bogdanovic. “… We put a couple different set pieces in for him for when teams start switching or start playing small.”

“We’re not necessarily trying to post him up every time — that’s just not how we’re built — but we’re definitely looking for him as much as we can whenever he gets a deep seal,” added Conley. “Guys are doing their best to make those passes. … He’s been a real force, and improved a lot.”

For his part, Gobert sees an effort being made, and is, as Snyder suggested, appreciative of it.

Then again, to some degree, he sees that as the natural end result of the work that he’s put in to become a more legitimate scoring threat in the post, particularly against smaller opponents.

“For me, it’s huge to have the trust of my teammates, to see that they’re looking for me, and the coaches are trying to put an emphasis on having the guys look for me. It just gives me more confidence. And then it’s on me to give them a good target, have good position at the rim,” Gobert said. “… I think it’s a really big step for us, and we’ve been getting so much better at it this year. It starts with me giving them the confidence to give me the ball, and then showing them that good things happen most of the time when I get it.”

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