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Rudy Gobert says recent stretch shows Warriors, Suns are a 'step ahead' of Jazz

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert signs a shoe for a fan after their victory against the Minnesota Timberwolves during an NBA game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 31, 2021.

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert signs a shoe for a fan after their victory against the Minnesota Timberwolves during an NBA game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 31, 2021. (Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News )



Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — For five games, Rudy Gobert was forced to watch from a remote location as his team struggled.

He saw what Denver's Nikola Jokic did to the Gobert-less Jazz — to be fair, Jokic does that to everyone, often to even Gobert.

Next came Toronto's Fred VanVleet's 37-point triple-double, but that was when the Jazz left most of their team in the United States to avoid any long-term quarantines in Canada. Again, not much room for concern.

Then Indiana's Domantas Sabonis scored 42 points on 18-of-22 shooting, and that was followed up by allowing Detroit's Cade Cunningham to lead a 22-point comeback. Those were winnable games, and the Jazz imploded.

The five games Gobert was in the NBA's health and safety protocols may be end up being his best case to be league MVP. The Jazz were awful without him, giving up huge nights and posting a defensive rating that would be far and away the worst in the league.

So what did Gobert — who is expected to make his return against Denver on Sunday after clearing the NBA's health and safety protocols — see from his team?

"You could feel that there was not much communication," Gobert said. "It's not like you choose to give up something, we were giving up everything. That's what happens when you don't communicate and, to me, that's the No. 1 area where I feel like we can improve is communication."

That's how Gobert began a lengthy explanation of Utah's struggles. He touched on where the Jazz are as contenders compared to the other top Western Conference squad, and sent what sounded awfully like a veiled challenge to his teammates.

"When I watch some of these other teams — the Suns, the Warriors — those guys are a step ahead of us in terms of winning habits," he said. "I feel like they take every game personally. Devin Booker is playing his ass off defensively.

"Guys like that, they buy in and you can tell that they take pride in playing defense — stopping their man, doing whatever they can defensively to stop the other team and be part of a winning culture," he continued. "I just think we're not there yet. I think we're going to get there."

Why did he specially bring up Booker — a player who is regularly compared to Utah's own Donovan Mitchell? Read into that what you will. The overall point, however, doesn't take much to get: The Jazz have to develop better habits if they want to make a deep run in the playoffs. Mitchell, himself, expressed similar sentiments following recent losses to the Pacers and Pistons.

The lackadaisical transition defense has to be much more limited. The effort at the points of attack has to be better. The Jazz can no longer rely fully on Gobert cleaning up mistakes.

To that point, the All-NBA center said he thought the current four-game series will help the Jazz reach a higher level. Gobert emphasized that the Jazz won't be able to just flip a switch when the playoffs roll along, so it's important to clear them up now. A four-game losing streak tends to amp up the urgency.

"It's never easy to watch your team lose games," Gobert said. "But I do think that sometimes when you go through tough stretches as a team down the stretch, it can make you better and I think you know that stretch is gonna make us better down the road."

Rudy Gay, who also cleared health and safety protocols Friday, shared that optimism. For the players who have had to take on most of the burden, like Mitchell, with so many players entering COVID protocols, the recent struggles will prove to be a beneficial learning experience.

"I think some of our younger leaders haven't faced this kind of adversity and it's something that builds character," Gay said, before adding. "This is a team that we need everybody to win."

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