Rudy Gobert staying glued to Luka Doncic sets the tone for the Utah Jazz’s win over Mavs

Down the stretch of the fourth quarter, the three-time DPOY got switched onto and matched up against the incendiary perimeter scorer — and he prevailed.

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rudy Gobert, left, defends the basket for a stop against Dallas Mavericks, Luke Doncic, in the Vivint arena in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022.

Ahead of Friday night’s Utah Jazz vs. Dallas Mavericks matchup at Vivint Arena, Mavs coach Jason Kidd was asked about the challenge of defending such a high-powered offense, and what the basis of his scheme was.

Not wanting to give any specifics away, he answered with a generic baseball analogy about switching things up: “We’ll throw some different pitches.”

Ultimately, though, it was a wicked curveball from Quin Snyder late in the proceedings that yielded the most timely swings-and-misses: Switching three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert onto Luka Doncic.

Yes, the All-NBA wing got a big bucket on one possession against the 7-foot-1 center. But it was the big guy who prevailed in the majority of their 1-on-1 isolation matchups, as he nimbly chased the superstar scorer around from the 3-point line to the rim and all points in between — forcing a pair of misses (including one on an emphatic blocked shot), a shot-clock violation, and an out-of-bounds call.

Gobert earned jubilant screams from the Viv crowd for his physical prowess, and nods of appreciation from the media afterward as he dissected the transfixing chess match.

“It’s just multiple actions — he’s a very smart player,” Gobert said of Doncic. “First of all, he knows I’m trying to take away the stepback, so he’s faking a stepback and then he’s driving. And I know he’s going to try to use my body and then stop, so I’ve got to stay balanced and absorb the contact. And then he’s going to try and get me in the air, so I’ve got to stay down and pretty much contest the shot.”

He made it sound so simple (”Just try to give him different looks and make him uncomfortable”). And he even made it look simple.

And in reality, it was anything but.

“When Rudy switched onto him — we talked about how good Luka Doncic is — that is really hard,” noted Snyder.

No one needed any convincing.

The Slovenian finished the game with 23 points, 11 assists, and seven rebounds. But he also wound up shooting 8 for 24 overall, and in the fourth quarter he shot 3 for 8 and handed out zero assists.

Basically, the Jazz felt confident letting Gobert try to disrupt Doncic, enabling them to remain attached to Dallas’ cadre of shooters — who went a collective 9 of 23 in the final 12 minutes.

“We got to a point where they just wanted that isolation, so we just trusted in big fella and we stayed home, and he was able to force [Doncic] into tough shots, and when he did pass the ball, we were able to close out to our guys,” said Donovan Mitchell. “We gave up one [offensive] rebound at the end to [Dorian] Finney-Smith, but outside of that, we did what we were supposed to do. And so did he — he guarded him, he slid his feet, stayed in front.”

Gobert, of course, thinks this is no big deal.

Asked if it was gratifying to have highlights making the rounds of him capably handling one of the best perimeter-offense players in the league, he expressed some minor annoyance at his doubters and detractors, at the idea that this is anything new.

“The numbers have been in my favor, but for some reason … I blame Bleacher Report for that. The perception has never matched the numbers,” Gobert said. “I hope they can do a better job in the future to show … they show the bad plays, so show the good ones. There’s way more good ones than bad ones.”

That was certainly the case on Friday.

Asked what signs he’s looking for when switched onto smaller defenders, Gobert explained that he goes into games cognizant of what some specific players’ preferred go-to moves are, and that he’s aware of what the foul situation is — both personally and how many the team has to give before the penalty situation kicks in — so that he can make a determination on how physical he can be.

“If I don’t have a lot of fouls, and we have team fouls [available], I can be a little more aggressive, force them to drive. And then once they drive, I’m pretty much in my comfort zone,” he said. “That’s where I get them where I want them to be.”

Indeed, Doncic complained after the game that, on the shot that Gobert blocked, he was too physical, made too much contact, and should have been whistled for a foul that was never called.

Gobert’s sardonic reply?

“I mean, I’m not a ref,” he began with a smirk. “It was a very physical game. And Luka always uses his body really well and always pushes off and everything. So if they’re not going to call a push-off, then you shouldn’t call anything else. Unless it’s a foul — and I didn’t think there was enough contact to call a foul.”

The Mavericks and their fans had a decidedly different perspective, of course.

But on this night, with the game called the way it was, the narrative that emerged from a broader perspective was that Luka Doncic and Rudy Gobert went 1-on-1 with the game on the line … and Gobert got the better of it.

“My teammates, my coaches trust me to guard anyone anywhere,” he said. “And yeah, sometimes you’re gonna give up buckets, sometimes I might get crossed [up] — it’s the NBA, guys are talented. But I’m just always gonna try to make them hit the toughest shot possible. And usually good things happen.”

They did Friday. And now, the Jazz will hope that — with two more matchups against the Mavs ahead in the coming days, and a potential postseason matchup besides — no matter what changeup Dallas throws at them, they can produce similar results.

“That’s what the playoffs are gonna be, that’s what the playoffs were last year against the Clippers — they try to space us and attack,” Mitchell noted. “And for us, it’s just being able to compete and make stops.”