SALT LAKE CITY —Decked out in a tailor-fitted white suit and unbuttoned navy blue undershirt, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert was still in the Christmas spirit after the team’s latest 117-96 win versus Portland.
Gobert logged his 29th double-double of the season with 18 points and 14 boards, plus a season-high seven swats.
His seven blocks also tied for the second-most on Christmas Day in NBA history with Elvin Hayes (1980) while Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan’s eight swats in 2011 still holds down the top spot.
But as Gobert and the Jazz move forward to another TNT marquee matchup against Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday, after holding Portland to 39.3 percent from the field, the 7-foot-1 Frenchman remains focused on growing as a team.
“You got Joel Embiid coming up on Thursday, what are you looking forward to about that matchup?” a reporter asked Gobert.
“You mean the Sixers? Yeah, we’re playing against the 76ers,” Gobert corrected him.
After a disappointing 14-17 start, with 21 of the first 35 games away from home, Gobert is careful not to publicize any personal battles, even with the Jazz winning three of their last four games to improve to 17-18 overall.
Part of the Jazz’s early struggles involved Gobert learning how to adapt to the way officials were calling freedom of movement plays on the perimeter and in the post as one of the key areas of emphasis for this season.
Over the last five games, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year says he’s moving his feet more, staying disciplined, showing hands, contesting shots, while beating players to their spot and still trying to be physical.
After last season’s second round postseason run, where the Jazz held the league’s best defensive rating (102.9), Utah opened the season in the middle of the pack defensively, but hold a 97.3 defensive rating over the last five games — which is the second-best in the league. The Jazz are 8-3 when holding teams below 100, as they did against Portland on Tuesday night.
“It’s human nature, you’ll always have some ups and downs but now we realize that even when we’re down if we play defense we can still win games,” Gobert said. “Once we realize that, everyone has put more effort into it and it’s a better team.”
Gobert is also averaging 16.8 points, 12.6 rebounds and 3.4 blocks on 55.4 percent shooting during this five-game stretch as a major force in the paint.
“It helps us out a lot. He’s out there protecting the paint and just getting rebounds, blocking shots and that kind of takes pressure off a lot of the other guys,” said Jazz forward Derrick Favors. “He’s been playing like a beast lately so hopefully he can keep it up.”
Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams has known Gobert since they entered the league in 2013 during the same class, where they often battled in pre-draft workouts. After facing Gobert twice this year, Adams says he notices a difference in the way the Jazz are using Gobert by dragging him out to guard more on the perimeter and implementing him better in pick-and-roll and transition situations, similar to what Jordan and Tyson Chandler of the Los Angeles Lakers are doing.
“He’s an effective guy, don’t get me wrong,” Adams said. “He changes the game because he’s such a big dude, such a big lob threat, rebounding threat and just a great rim protector so those are tough things to deal with so obviously he changes the game.”
Utah’s team goal is to keep evolving, while Gobert has worked to improve at not only protecting the rim but also closing out better on the perimeter, while still getting back to hold down the paint.1 comment on this story
“It made me better. I kind of sat there and I was like, ‘Why wouldn’t I be able to do that?’” Gobert said of becoming better at defensive closeouts. “I think it was more mental than anything. I just wanted to stay in my comfort zone and do what I was able to do but I realized that I can do anything.”
Including making those bold Christmas Day fashion statements, draped in all white.
This newfound confidence in Gobert at defending in all facets of the game seems to be playing a major factor in the recent turnaround with the team after enduring the toughest schedule amongst their peers.
“I’m prepared to guard anyone,” Gobert said.