On Jan. 19, Rudy Gobert returned from a 15-game absence. His presence on the floor couldn’t have been more needed by the Utah Jazz.
The story began several weeks earlier: A 13-15 team was trying to find its way in the post-Gordon Hayward era when Gobert suffered an MCL sprain two minutes into a game against the Boston Celtics on Dec. 15. Losing one star in the summer wasn’t easy to overcome, but it was something the Jazz could adjust to in real time. They had contingency plans if Hayward bolted for greener pastures. They had an entire offseason to figure out what the team could and should be.
Losing a second star before Christmas Day left them rudderless. Even though Hayward left, the Jazz felt confident they could find a way to remain competitive — maybe even stay in the playoff picture. While Hayward was their best player, Gobert was their identity. His defensive presence helped transform them from a scrappy, young team trying to find its way to a presence in the Western Conference. Gobert becoming one of the best pick-and-roll big men in the NBA complemented the offensive firepower of Hayward. Dennis Lindsey filled in the pieces around them with Joe Ingles, Joe Johnson and George Hill. Derrick Favors limped through a couple of seasons, but his presence always seemed important to the team and especially Quin Snyder.
Having Gobert locked up long term and committed to proving Hayward wrong for leaving him and this team kept the identity intact. The Jazz’s offense may have to scrap together possessions to win games, but the defense always gives them an anchor in games. Remove Gobert from that picture and the Jazz start to spiral. Utah went just 4-11 during this 15-game absence, praying rookie Donovan Mitchell had enough moxie to win ballgames. The team had a weird start to the month of January, too — with its best shooters struggling to knock down wide-open shots.
Gobert returned on Jan. 19 and looked a little like his old self against the New York Knicks. He peppered old teammate Enes Kanter with scores inside, rebounds and rim protection. He didn’t even look all that great in terms of his standard of play, and he still put up 23 points, 14 rebounds and three blocked shots in just under 30 minutes. The Jazz lost that game before following it with a 12-point victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. Then the Jazz hit a huge lull. Gobert’s presence wasn’t enough against the lowly Atlanta Hawks and the Jazz lost by 14 points. It was the low point of their season.
A couple of things happened after that point.
Ricky Rubio took some stitches in the next game against the Detroit Pistons and flashed a little toughness in returning to the game — something players and people around the organization said injected a little more fire into the group fighting for a win.
The bigger thing that happened was Gobert started to get his legs under him after his first few games. He prowled the painted area like a lion searching to protect his den. Slightly hunched over, arms spread wide, he reminded opponents of the impossible reach they’d have to shoot over should they choose to challenge the Frenchman inside.
Amazingly, Utah ran off 11 straight victories. Before the win streak, Utah sat 10th in the West. After the win streak, Utah still sat 10th in the West. The insanity of the playoff race out West has made an 11-game winning streak in the middle of the season relatively meaningless. It’s simply meaningless in the sense of moving the Jazz up the standings, but it obviously put them in a position to actually make the playoffs. What has changed in Gobert’s return to form, and how do the Jazz make the postseason?
Gobert remains the Jazz’s best and most important player. That has been pretty evident in winning 15 of their last 17 games (when the 11-game win streak started). During Gobert’s 15-game absence, Utah had the second-worst record in the NBA. Only the 2-13 Orlando Magic struggled to win more. The Jazz also had the worst net rating (minus-9.5) in the NBA during that stretch. Utah had the fourth-worst offense and the third-worst defense during that month. It just couldn’t cobble together enough stretches of competitive basketball to remain afloat. The fact that the Jazz won even four of those games with the way they were losing most nights is a head-scratcher.
Since Gobert’s return, the Jazz are 16-4 with a net rating of plus-8.7 (fourth-best mark in the league). They shot up to the 15th-best offense during this stretch while playing the best defense in basketball. Their defensive rating has improved by 13.1 points per 100 possessions. Resetting the team’s rotation has helped Quin Snyder calm down a lot of the areas where their game was falling apart. The Jazz don’t hemorrhage points now when Gobert needs a breather. Since his return, they’ve been a positive on the court, outscoring opponents by 1.8 points per 100 possessions when he sits on the bench.
Throw Gobert onto the floor and the Jazz dominate. They outscore opponents by 11.7 points and allow just 97.4 points per 100 possessions. That 109.1 offensive rating with Gobert on the floor would have them flirting with a top-10 offense during this stretch as well. Individually, he has been pretty good with numbers. He has averaged 15 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.4 blocks during the last 20 games.
Despite missing 26 games, Gobert has crept into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation, too. That’s mostly due to no clear-cut favorite and Gobert inciting a dominant stretch of basketball. He has likely missed too much time to truly garner votes, but the conversation is currently there.
Another important development has been the play of Gobert and Derrick Favors together. Over the past couple of seasons, the Jazz have pushed to try to make the more traditional big-man pairing work. Part of the problem, though, was injuries kept the two big men from finding strides together. Gobert would miss time or Favors would often try to play through a knee injury.
Since Gobert’s return, this pairing has been dominant. The Jazz have outscored opponents by 13 points per 100 possessions in their 302 minutes on the floor together over the last 20 games. Both players have been healthy lately outside of Favors missing last game with neck spasms — it gives the Jazz a big decision when Favors becomes a free agent this summer.
Before the Jazz get to the summer, though, they have to concentrate on making the postseason.
The playoff hunt
At 34-30, the Jazz find themselves one game behind the 8-seed Denver Nuggets. The Los Angeles Clippers are a half-game between both of those teams. There are only 18 games left, but the Jazz actually sit just 3.5 games outside of the 4-seed. That’s how compact this entire setup is. The next eight games for the Jazz are mostly favorable. They can string together a bunch of wins to put pressure on the teams above them.
They begin a three-game road trip Wednesday night with a game in Indiana, followed by games in Memphis and in New Orleans. The Pelicans have currently forgotten how to lose games and keep coming through in these tight contests. A win over the Pelicans would be a huge boost to Utah’s chances, just in case a swoon finally befalls the Pels. Then the four-game homestand against Detroit, Phoenix, Sacramento and Atlanta gives them a chance to truly pad their win total. After that, they go to Dallas before the schedule tightens back up against the Spurs and Warriors.
Utah seems to be surging at the same time San Antonio, Minnesota, Oklahoma City and Denver are struggling. Eight of Utah’s final 18 games are against current playoff teams. Half of the games are at home. The Jazz face several teams that could be warned about tanking by the league office. Utah’s schedule isn’t easy, but it’s favorable. The Jazz just have to leapfrog the Clippers in the process and hope their next stretch of good play and favorable results gets them out of 10th in the West and into the top eight.
All stats via NBA.com.