Rudy Gobert isn’t a four-time All-Defensive Team member and two-time Defensive Player of the Year by accident. Not only is he top-20 all-time in blocks per game at 2.2 (averaging a career-high 2.7 so far this season), but Gobert has firmly established himself as one of the best interior defenders the NBA has today.
Heading into Tuesday’s nationally-televised contest with the Boston Celtics, opponents were shooting 11.4 percent worse within six feet of the rim with Gobert as the nearest defender. That’s a top-five mark among players contesting at least 7.0 shots per game, an elite standing the properly nicknamed Stifle Tower has maintained for the last five seasons.
Opponents have gotten a strong taste of Gobert this season as the Utah Jazz have jumped out to a league-best 20-5 record with a top-three defense. The Celtics were simply the latest in a 122-108 defeat, their third in the last four games to finish their west coast trip with a 2-3 record.
“You can’t make mistakes against these guys,” Brad Stevens said after the game. “...When you make a mistake, they make you pay.”
Teams typically attack the basket hoping for a shot around the rim, but Gobert’s presence has many offensive players stopping short to throw up floaters and push shots as a way to avoid odds not in their favor.
Boston isn’t the most frequent visitor of the restricted area on most nights anyway, having ranked 23rd in such attempts heading into this game. They take the shots Gobert’s defense encourages, ranking fifth in none-RA paint attempts per game at 17.6.
According to NBA Stats, the Celtics took 30 shots within that floater area against the Jazz. Of course, not all were caused by Gobert. Grant Williams faced a shot clock violation before quickly flipping in a basket. The hook shot is a favorite of Tristan Thompson from that area. A euro-step by Jaylen Brown on the fast break had him release a bit farther out from the basket.
But there were still times when it seemed like members of the Celtics altered their course of action on account of Gobert’s lurking presence near the rim.
Early in the second quarter, Jayson Tatum spun baseline off his defender for a layup attempt Gobert nearly got a hand on, his contest ultimately causing the miss.
Barely a minute later, Tatum, who fought his way to eight free throw attempts in this game, executed a near-identical move from the same area of the court, only to loft a floater Utah’s big man didn’t feel he had to contest.
A 7’9’’ wingspan and 9’7’’ standing reach give Gobert the range to affect all types of shots around the basket. But it’s those incredible physical gifts combined with the reputation his numbers and hardware have built over time that offers him the unique ability to deter plenty of other looks from ever being attempted.
In the play below, Payton Pritchard has a clear step on George Niang after beating him off the dribble. A right-handed scoop layup seems appropriate for Pritchard to use his body to shield off Niang. But while this is happening, Gobert is sliding across the paint to stand as a roadblock.
The most recent 26th pick has shown few rookie nerves, but he’s smart enough not to charge his 6’1’’ 195-pound frame into a waiting Gobert. Pritchard dribbles back out and towards the free throw line while the shot clock ticks down, having few other choices but to pass to Robert Williams III for a rare mid-range jumper that clanks off the front of the rim.
Later, the Celtics had managed to slash a deficit as high as 14 in half with just over four minutes left in the game.
It looked like Brown found a way to beat Utah’s defense backdoor. And after Thompson delivered a crisp feed, he would be able to shrink the Jazz’s lead even further. But immediately on the catch, Brown realized who his closest defender was and that he was trespassing in his domain.
Brown could’ve tried for a reverse layup, using the rim to avoid getting blocked, but Gobert’s arms know no limit, so Brown didn’t deem it worth the risk. Instead, like Pritchard, he dribbled back out looking for an alternative, only to heave a tough fall away jumper that didn’t fall.
Boston is the lowest first quarter paint-scoring team in the league, a large reason why they’re a middling first quarter team overall. That season-long trend continued when they were outscored 12-4 in the paint in the opening frame against Utah yet led by three after those 12 minutes, the only quarter they won the entire game.
Gobert could’ve played the entire quarter. When you hold a 7-3 advantage in 3-pointers made as Boston did, his ability to affect the outcome of a game drops significantly.
The problem was that the Celtics didn’t maintain anything close to that torrid 58.3 percent outside shooting mark, making only six more threes the rest of the way (6-of-17, 35.2 percent). Conversely, the Jazz shot 15-of-34 from distance across the latter 36 minutes (44.4 percent), outscoring their opponent by 17 in that time.
“They seem like they’re playing the best basketball right now,” Tatum said. The Jazz are winners of 16 of their last 17 games. “Guys over there are playing well, and they’re just clicking. They’re just playing really well together.”
And it’s not just Gobert obviously. Boston gave themselves a chance at a win when it was able to avoid testing him. But as the 3-point shot abandoned them and was subsequently rediscovered by Utah, they didn’t have much of a choice. They had to try and get something going around the basket to keep pace, which they didn’t.
Many others have faced a similar dilemma against a team that also boasts a top-five mark in opponent’s 3-point percentage. As Utah’s league-best record would indicate, there haven’t been many answers through more than a quarter of the season.
A silver lining in defeat? The Celtics should have had plenty of time to come up with solutions of their own on the long flight back east to Boston.