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The Bigger They Are, the Harder They Fall?

Rudy Gobert, a mountain of a man, has turned the Jazz’s defense into a force as imposing as some of the NBA’s best offenses. But will the Defensive Player of the Year candidate also be Utah’s Achilles’ heel in the postseason?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A “prayer” in the NBA is often thought of as a long-distance heave, but in the vicinity of Rudy Gobert, it can be a shot as common as a midrange floater. A normal prayer shot has only one extremely unlikely objective: land through the net. An awkward floater over the outstretched arms of Gobert seemingly has one of two goals: land through the net or carom over to a teammate on Gobert’s blind side, at which point he might be able to do something more productive with the possession.

Gobert is a physical marvel—7-foot-1 and 245 pounds with a 7-foot-8.5 wingspan and an impossible 9-foot-7 standing reach. But despite his awing stature, he moves in a way only a handful of people his size in the world can replicate. The sum of his dimensions is singular; his presence is, itself, dimension-breaking.

The center’s ungodly reach and lateral quickness allow him to occupy the space of two players—simply by being present with arms outstretched, he almost functions as a one-man zone from the free throw line extended. It changes how the Jazz defend pick-and-rolls. It changes the frequency with which opponents even attempt to enter the lane. And should they enter the lane, it distorts the calculus of a drive: Looking up to Gobert in front of you can plant seeds of doubt in an instant, which is all it takes for the perimeter defenders around the Frenchman to recover and converge.

The way we talk about Gobert is often reserved for playmakers on the opposite end of the court. It’s easy to suss out what it looks like on offense. But it’s rare to find a player who simplifies and clarifies what good defense can be in the same manner that, say, a Steph Curry dribbling suite into a pull-up 3-pointer can on offense. That’s a quality worth building a team around, and the Jazz have done exactly that. They’ve structured their squad around Gobert’s omnipresence the way the Warriors have crafted an intricate and creative system based on Curry’s altruistic style of basketball. In an era of accelerant offenses, Utah is a defensive oasis, surrounding its obelisk with smart, energetic, and unrelenting defenders who are good in a vacuum but better together. Most teams throughout history have been built on the gravity that their star player assumes on offense. The Jazz are a rare inversion.

After losing Gobert to injury for stretches of 11 and 15 games earlier in the season, the Jazz have been absolutely dominant, allowing just 98.1 points per 100 possessions. Extrapolate that over a season, and the Jazz are one of the two best defenses of the NBA’s “Light-Years Ahead” era. As much as the team serves as an emblem of old-timey basketball principles, it is also oddly a perfect defense of the times.

There are still only a handful of teams already constructed to take full advantage of the bounty brought about by the pace-and-space boom. Not every team has shooters at every position, not every team has defenders versatile enough to be on the floor for any occasion, not every team can trot out a Lineup of Death stylistic imitation. Most teams have to make the best of a situation with the pieces they have, and the Jazz are uniquely equipped to exploit any and all loose ends. After starting the season with a disappointing 18-27 record, Utah has since won 28 of its past 34 games and is currently in sole possession of the West’s 4-seed, which would grant home-court advantage in the first round. The Jazz are thriving in a league still in flux. Their defense is perfect in the present. But should they make it past the first round, they’ll have to reckon with the future of the sport—in either of its forms. Odds are it won’t be pretty.

You’d be forgiven if you forgot last year’s Jazz-Warriors second-round series ever happened. It was as nondescript a four-game sweep as you can imagine—an all-time great team filing its nails against a team that was weakened by injury (George Hill played one game in the series, and Derrick Favors was reduced to an ineffective husk after season-long knee and back issues). A truer optimist than I might have given a game to Utah if it was running at full capacity. If there was one moment you remembered from the series, it was probably this:

In seven seconds, Steph Curry dissolved the veneer of Gobert’s impenetrable defense by dragging him out into deep space. The Warriors brought up a double-screen with Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, who attached themselves to Boris Diaw and Dante Exum, respectively, forcing Gobert to pick up the Curry assignment at the 3-point line. The Stifle Tower does two complete circles in space before losing both Curry and his sense of time and place altogether. It wasn’t even halftime of Game 1, but it was clear that the Jazz could never recover from that. It was an existential tailspin that rendered itself literally in real time.

Every team in the NBA understands the inherent weaknesses that Gobert affixes to team defense, but they rear an ugly head only when a team is talented enough to take him out of his comfort zone without giving up any clear advantage on the opposite side of the ball. The Warriors played a five-out lineup without a traditional center for roughly 31 of the 192 minutes in the series, but nearly every other lineup they trotted out had at least four shooters on the floor; the Warriors always had the sets and personnel to keep the Jazz on their toes. Two games were played at Utah’s pace, two games were played at Golden State’s. It hardly mattered. The Jazz lost by an average of 15 points over the four games.

The Warriors have become notorious over past two years in their refusal to show their trump cards too early. Their five-out lineups are ultimately considered a luxury to be indulged only sparingly. But they aren’t the only team in the NBA seemingly built to undress the Jazz defense. The Rockets—who have established themselves as 1B in the league hierarchy this season—have taken the Warriors model and gone in the opposite direction: They will exploit the biggest advantages they have on the basis that most teams don’t have the horses to stop them. It was never as evident as their final meeting of the season against Utah back on February 26, in a 96-85 Rockets win over the Jazz.

Despite the Rockets forcing Gobert into switches onto James Harden and Chris Paul within the first three minutes of the game, the Jazz largely controlled the state of play. The Rockets were playing without Clint Capela, Eric Gordon, and Ryan Anderson, which forced coach Mike D’Antoni to play Tarik Black and Nene for extended minutes. Believe it or not, in a low-possession game in which the Rockets won by 11, the Jazz had the biggest lead of the night (15) in the first half. Everything was turned upside down in the second half, when D’Antoni eschewed his big men for huge chunks of the game. As my colleague Jonathan Tjarks noted, the Rockets have cut out all the dead weight in their roster, establishing a mix-and-match approach that is arguably more versatile than any team in the league. The Rockets don’t have one Lineup of Death. They have a regiment of small deaths.

The lineup that ruined the Jazz that particular night? Harden and Paul surrounded by Joe Johnson, Trevor Ariza, and Luc Mbah a Moute. Together, the cabal of perimeter-oriented players no taller than 6-foot-8 ran a clinic on how to take Gobert out of the game.

The Rockets drew inspiration from that Curry play from last year, running what might be a playful variant of D’Antoni’s “52” action, where a screen from a center is followed a beat later by a decoy screen by the shooting guard just behind him, freeing up the ball handler for a drive, the center for a layup, or the shooting guard for a 3. In the play above, the 5 and 2 screen simultaneously, but in reality, it’s all a misdirection: The screens weren’t meant for Paul, they were meant for Harden and Mbah a Moute to casually switch assignments. Gobert, misreading the play out near the arc, frantically calls for Joe Ingles’s attention on Harden, but as the Aussie’s head swivels, Mbah a Moute shoots out of a cannon for a dunk on a perfect pocket pass from Harden.

The Rockets, who were incredibly rude all game, ran the same action two plays later:

This time, the play was meant to set Paul up with the Gobert mismatch. But the Rockets conspicuously running the same play was psychologically manipulative—they were giving Gobert a taste of his own medicine. Faced with indecision, Gobert dropped back and then lost his balance on a closeout, allowing Mbah a Moute to get all the way to the rim, again.

At their best, the Jazz are completely beholden to Gobert’s influence. Gobert has become one of the best screeners in the game; the amount of space he can free for players is directly proportional to the outstanding offensive seasons Donovan Mitchell and Ricky Rubio are having. There are plays when he can straight up truck two defenders, leaving wide-open spaces for the shooters around him.

At their worst, they are also completely beholden to Gobert’s influence. What happens when a playoff team can routinely exploit Gobert on the perimeter? He is too central to the entire team’s operations to sit out, but he’s also too ill-equipped to handle five-out lineups regularly. It’s an existential question on par with the one that has faced all Eastern Conference challengers in the shadow of LeBron James. There isn’t a convenient answer. The Jazz are putting the finishing touches on one of the most remarkable in-season turnarounds in recent memory and are performing at a level that deserves your attention. Over the past three months, they’ve been an elite team. As such, expectations have to be raised. Utah can stand tall against every team in the NBA. But its Achilles’ heel is as exposed as it’s ever been.