Rudy Gobert is back — but that’s not the only reason the Utah Jazz are winning

On a six-game winning streak, Donovan Mitchell concedes “I can’t say those [winning habits] were there earlier in the year”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) looks for an open teammate as the Utah Jazz host the Houston Rockets at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City, Monday, Feb. 14, 2022.

The last time Rudy Gobert returned from missing a stretch of games, due to contracting COVID-19 in January, the Utah Jazz’s defense was at its nadir, and the three-time DPOY pointedly and publicly let his teammates know of his displeasure.

When he made his latest return to the court Monday night against the Houston Rockets, following a nine-game absence due to a left calf strain, the Jazz found themselves in a decidedly different spot.

A five-game losing streak has now been supplanted by six wins in a row. But it’s not merely the results that have changed, but the process of getting there.

And so, the All-Star center once again made his feelings known — this time offering the carrot instead of the stick.

“Our energy is different. Something happened within our team. That little slump that we had, that little bad stretch really sparked something within our locker room,” Gobert said after Utah’s 135-101 demolition of the Rockets. “We’re really playing like a team that’s trying to accomplish something. Regardless of who we play, we have the same mindset — that we’re gonna play harder than them, and we’re gonna play together, and we’re gonna compete defensively.”

While you can certainly nitpick the quality of competition the Jazz have faced during this turnaround stretch (the Nuggets were missing Nikola Jokic and Aaron Gordon; the Nets played without Kevin Durant and James Harden; the Warriors were sans Draymond Green and Klay Thompson; and then there were the Knicks, Magic, and Rockets), it’s also true that the Jazz were previously losing to opponents of this ilk.

Quality of competition notwithstanding, coach Quin Snyder has said that the specific game results during this time are less important than Utah’s players building the habits that will make winning more consistent in the end.

And that, according to those involved, is what’s truly been the difference of late.

“You see that everyone’s playing with a different energy — you see Donovan [Mitchell] picking up and creating steals, we’re getting 50-50 balls, guys are boxing out and not giving up offensive rebounds. Those plays, we were a step slow or didn’t even attempt to do when we were losing those games,” Mike Conley said after Monday’s pregame shootaround. “… When you start to do it enough — back to back to back, and being consistent with it — it leads to that culture that you’re trying to bring defensively. It allows us to miss shots and still win games.”

Speaking of which …

Conley would go on to score all of two points against the Rockets, owing to shooting 1 of 8 overall and 0 for 6 from 3-point range.

And yet, good luck finding anyone in the organization who thought he had a bad game after contributing 10 assists, four steals, three rebounds, and even a blocked shot — all while committing zero turnovers.

“It’s really important for our whole team to know that you have the ability to impact the game even if you’re not scoring,” said Snyder. “It’s easy to get caught up in the scoring as the sole contribution to the game. Everybody wants to make shots, but when it’s not going down, what can you do to help your team win?”

The Jazz have been walking that walk more of late.

Mitchell noted how important it now is to keep that trend going. He pointed out how, even after the Jazz had amassed a 25-point halftime lead, they stayed on one another to keep their level up and not have a letdown.

Snyder’s primary critique was that, “I would’ve liked to see us push it a little further in the third quarter.” Mitchell, meanwhile, relayed that he got on Bojan Bogdanovic for making a careless pass to Jordan Clarkson that turned into a turnover. He also noted that teammates got on him for throwing a bad pass over the top to Gobert. And that he got on himself for being out of position in a rebounding situation, and that the Frenchman had to bail him out.

Conversely, he praised Eric Paschall for a play in which the forward sprinted back on a transition opportunity for the Rockets and wound up foiling a potential scoring play by deflecting a pass out of bounds.

“We gotta stay sharp. That’s how you build those winning habits. I can’t say those were there earlier in the year,” Mitchell said. “We’re all holding each other accountable, we’re all communicating to each other with that. And that’s what’s allowing us to take that step. We have one more before the break, and we can’t go into the break and think we’ve got it figured out. We’ve got to continue to stay locked in, continue to stay locked into our principles on both ends of the floor.”

Gobert said that what stood out to him during this latest time away was how pervasive that mentality had become throughout the entire roster.

How one guy making a play leads to another.

And how that will ultimately define what the Jazz are capable of.

“I think it’s contagious. When you have guys like Trent [Forrest], like [Danuel House] … you see Donovan diving on the floor, you see Mike getting his hands everywhere,” Gobert said. “It’s just contagious, and it’s really becoming who we are as a team. And on nights when we don’t make shots, we can win the game because we play harder than the other team.”