Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes
DALLAS — When Rudy Gobert was asked about the need to "punish" teams for going small against the Jazz, he had a zinger locked and loaded.
"Everyone looks small to me," Gobert said with only a hint of sarcasm after Utah's 99-93 win over Dallas in Game 1.
Well, maybe not 7-foot-4 Dallas reserve Boban Marjanovic (who is not expected to see much time during the series), but point taken.
Usually, when such a question is posed to the All-Star center, it's because a dreaded small-ball lineup had taken advantage of Utah's Gobert-reliant scheme. It had spread the Jazz out and pulled him away from the rim, and Utah wasn't able to counter with Gobert down low on the other end.
A look at Gobert's stat line from Saturday and it would be easy to think that was the case again: He was 0 for 1 for 5 points. Not exactly something that screams dominance, except he was.
Here are some other stats: Dallas shot 38.2% for the game and 9 of 32 from 3-point range, Utah won the rebounding battle 63-42, and the Mavs were 8 of 16 at the rim.
That was mostly Gobert.
He is one of the most fascinating players in the league because his mastery in games isn't always so obvious. How can a player that scores 5 points take over a contest? Gobert answered that question on Saturday.
He grabbed 17 rebounds against the smaller Mavs and forced Dallas into tough shot after tough shot. The Mavericks scored just 93 points — in today's NBA that's practically unheard of.
"When they went small — you guys realize that teams go small against us sometimes? — we outrebounded them by 20 rebounds," coach Quin Snyder said. "When teams go small against us, we have to use our strengths."
And no, that isn't posting up Gobert. It's using him to shut down offenses.
Why the Jazz have struggled in the past against smaller lineups is because their guards have struggled to contain the ball and then failed to rotate when Gobert came to help. A guard could penetrate the lane, which forced Gobert to dive down to stop a layup and then the ball would kick out for an open corner 3-point shot. That's exactly what killed the Jazz against the Los AngelesClippers last season.
But Utah threw an interesting — and potentially season-altering — wrinkle into things on Saturday.
When Gobert was forced to collapse from the corner, Utah's guards were quick to rotate to Gobert's man, and that gave Gobert time to recover back out to the perimeter.
That was different, as Indy Cornrows writer Caitlin Cooper showed here:
As a lifelong Jazz fan, look at this rotation with Gobert protecting the rim and swapping recovery paths with Mitchell on the closeout compared to when they got more than they bargained for from Mann in the corner.— Caitlin Cooper (@C2_Cooper) April 16, 2022
Impressive stuff from Gobert. pic.twitter.com/YqUHR6KRIL
"Rudy gets evaluated on a lot of things, sometimes two of them at the same time," Snyder said. "The fact that we've been making that analysis of a guy who can actually protect the rim and then go out and contest a 3 says a lot about what he's capable of doing. And his ability to do that is central to how we play defense."
Dallas was able to slow Utah's top-ranked offense in Game 1. The Jazz struggled to get clean looks from deep, and the Mavs sold out to stop the lob to Gobert. To limit both of those was impressive. Gobert just one-upped them.
"For him to get one shot, that's just another example of someone throwing themselves into the group," Snyder said.
It's a sacrifice he's willing to make, though he'd prefer to get a few more shots up.
"I do hope I get more in other games. But at the same time, I thought for the most part of the game, I thought we moved the ball," Gobert said. "We talk about sacrifice. That's what it's about. One night it might be me, one night it might be someone else."
After a few more games like Game 1, teams might just start to question the common strategy against the Jazz.
"If we're going to outrebound teams by 20, at some point they're going to have to think twice about going small," Snyder said.
Though, to Gobert, everyone is.