2020 Playoffs: First Round | Nuggets vs. Jazz

Rudy Gobert's underrated offense might power Utah's postseason success

A two-time Kia Defensive Player of the Year, 'The Stifle Tower' has sneaky impact on offense

Rudy Gobert’s nickname — “The Stifle Tower” — makes it pretty clear what people inside and outside the NBA think about his game.

It’s his height, his length, his rim protection. The opponents’ shots Gobert swats, the shots he changes and the ones he discourages completely. It’s not for nothing that Gobert owns the last two Kia NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards, is a finalist to win it again this season and routinely ranks as or among the league’s best in rebounds and blocked shots.

The 7-foot-1 Frenchman’s work at one end of the floor overshadows what he gives the Utah Jazz at the other end, but Gobert’s offense was a vital part of his team’s 124-105 victory over Denver in Game 2 on Wednesday. He scored 19 points on 7-for-10 shooting to help the Jazz, seeded No. 6 in the West playoff bracket, even their series at 1-1 with the No. 3 Nuggets.

How important were Gobert’s 19 points, besides representing the final margin? A strong case can be made that when this defensive dominator is putting the ball through the net, the Jazz flow better offensively and certainly enjoy more success.

Let’s just stick with 19, his output Wednesday: In the 17 games Gobert scored 19 or more during the regular season, Utah went 12-5. That’s clearly a bump from their 30-21 mark when he finished with fewer points.

It’s a pattern that holds, too. In 2018-19, the Jazz were 17-5 when their man in the middle reached 19 points, and 9-2 the season before that. That’s a combined 38-12 over three seasons, a .760 winning percentage.

Utah’s overall winning percentage since 2017-18 is .601 (142-94).

Now 19 isn’t a back-breaking number for a defense to yield, but it’s the result of Gobert staying active, getting to the rim and making himself available for feeds inside and lobs. That’s something no defense can neglect, as the Nuggets were reminded down at the Disney campus Wednesday.

Several times, Denver let Gobert leak inside their defense. Or they didn’t properly box him out, freeing him to score or slam back Utah misses. Typical for Gobert, he had three layups and four dunks – the high-percentage shots that fueled his NBA-best 69.3 FG% this season.

Gobert – a Denver draft pick in 2013 (No. 27) traded that very night to Utah for, er, Erick Green (56 career NBA appearances) and cash – sticks to what he knows best when the ball is in his hands. In seven seasons, fully 81% of his shots have come within three feet of the rim, and he has made 72.2% of those. No wonder he ranks second all-time in NBA shooting percentage, his 64.0 FG% trailing only DeAndre Jordan’s 66.9%.

Nobody else is close. Tyson Chandler ranks third at 59.7%.

So really, no attentive fan should be surprised that Gobert has led the league in dunks the past two seasons. He finished last week with 221 between the regular schedule and the bubble games. In 2018-19, Gobert’s 306 set an NBA record, for however long dunks actually have been tracked (I’d bet on Wilt Chamberlain if we had access to all-time stats).

By moving and looking for the ball, Gobert scored 10 points in the second quarter of Game 2, picking up slack as Donovan Mitchell managed only two. His dozen points by halftime might have been mentioned in the Denver locker room.

And then Utah scored 43 points in the third quarter, made 72 percent of its shots to break open the game – and Gobert shot 0-for-1.

“His ability to put pressure on the rim is a form of penetration,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said after a game last season. “You’ve got to account for him, and that draws defenders just the same way dribble penetration does. He’s actually creating offense. We’ve talked about spacing assists when he rolls to the rim.”

Gobert’s value out front in Utah’s attack has drawn raves for a long time. No one regularly sets more screens for his shooters. Sure enough, he was credited with 471 screen assists this season, tops in the league. Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis was next with 437 and Miami’s Bam Adebayo had 366.

Averaging 15.1 points, 13.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocked shots, Gobert won’t outscore his Denver matchup, Nikola Jokic, in this series. The Nuggets’ versatile big already leads in that category, 57-36. But Jokic is expected to — almost required to — score for his team to succeed.

Gobert can provide a bonus, sneaky in the offensive numbers he posts while remaining in the other guys’ heads due to his defense. Ever more assertive about his scoring skills, Gobert even called out the team early this season when he felt forgotten on offense:

“When you have a guy that’s [7-foot-1] who can catch the ball and finish under the rim, you have to use it.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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