SALT LAKE CITY — The smile on Trent Forrest's face kept growing as the question was asked.
"How many defenders have you played with that can stop on a two-on-one fast break by standing in the paint and looking at people?"
Forrest's answer: "Not many at all."
If there was one play that summed up Utah's early defensive dominance in its 110-99 win over the San Antonio Spurs at Vivint Arena, it was Rudy Gobert's transition stopping presence in the middle of the first quarter.
A rare San Antonio fast-break attempt in the first half turned into a Gobert reel for Defensive Player of the Year.
DeMar DeRozan drove to the rim, saw Gobert, thought better of it, and passed the ball. Devin Vassell, too, thought about challenging Gobert for about a second before also passing the ball back out. Dejounte Murray took one step in and then dribbled out to the 3-point line as Gobert nodded his head as if to say "good choice."
The funny thing about the play: It ended with Murray hitting a contested midrange shot. No one will remember that part. Heck, the Spurs likely didn't.
"When some guys push the ball and they think they're gonna have an open layup and all of a sudden they get blocked or they see me and they think that it might be better if they don't shoot it, I think it's demoralizing," said Gobert who had 24 points and 15 rebounds Monday night. "And for us, it does the opposite. I think we feed off that, and any time there is a play like that, whether it's me or anyone else, it's a momentum play."
That set the stage for what was a dominant team defensive effort in the first half Monday.
There's probably no true equivalent to pitching a no-hitter in the world of basketball, but the Jazz might have gotten close to it.
I'll explain: The Jazz defense is designed to stop shots at the rim and shots from the 3-point line. Utah's whole goal is to force opponents into inefficient (but contested) shots from the midrange.
Here's what San Antonio's first half shot chart looked like:
San Antonio was 0-for-7 from the 3-point line and 1-for-6 at the rim. Yes, the Spurs' (31-33) love affair with 20-foot jumpers helped the Jazz limit their shots at the rim and from 3; but even with that you'd expect some kind of layup off a fast break, a tip in after an offensive rebound, a random 3 — anything that wasn't in the midrange — to go in a little more frequently. Entering the final minute of the half, the Spurs had yet to make a shot in the areas the Jazz wanted to take away.
The Jazz were one possession away from achieving the feat of limiting San Antonio to no points at the rim or behind the arc (a feat they likely had no idea about — they aren't pouring over shot charts on the bench after all) when Keldon Johnson grabbed an offensive rebound and dished it to Murray for a layup with just 23 seconds left in the half.
That broke basketball nerds' hearts everywhere. OK, that's probably a bit hyperbolic, but it did ruin what would have been one of the strangest shot charts in the modern NBA. Alas, the historic footnote was gone.
"That's a tricky one," said Jazz coach Quin Snyder when asked about the Spurs' shot chart. "Because when you've got really good midrange shooters, we don't want to try to just give up midrange shots, we want to make them hard. I think they broke an NBA record last year from midrange."
He credited Gobert and Derrick Favors for getting out and contesting shots, and for Utah's wings for crashing down and grabbing the defensive boards when they did. San Antonio had just two offensive rebounds in the first half.
And while the Spurs, as usual, made a lot out of midrange shots Monday, there's a reason the Jazz choose to force teams into them: the math favors that approach. The Jazz led 60-43 at halftime despite the Spurs making over half of their midrange shots. And while the Jazz were stopping San Antonio from getting to the rim, Utah got there plenty itself.
Gobert was 10-of-14 at the rim to score his 24 points and Bogdanovic was 3-of-3 in the restricted area on his way to a game-high 25 points.
The two teams will face off again on Wednesday at Vivint Arena.
Playoff update: With the win, the Jazz (47-18) once again move up to the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference — but enjoy it while it lasts. Utah is a half-game ahead of Phoenix (46-18), by virtue of having played one more game. The Suns, who own the tiebreaker against the Jazz, will play the lowly Cavs on Tuesday.