SALT LAKE CITY – The smile on Trent Forest’s face was still growing when the question was asked.
“How many defenders have you played with who can stop at a two-on-one quick break by standing in the paint and watching people?”
Forrest’s response: “Not many at all.”
If there was one game that summed up Utah’s early defensive dominance in its 110-99 victory over the San Antonio Spurs at the Vivint Arena, it was Rudy Gobert’s transition that stopped the presence in the middle of the first quarter.
A rare San Antonio quick try in the first half turned into a Gobert wheel for Defensive Player of the Year.
DeMar DeRozan drove to the edge, so Gobert, thought better of it and passed the ball. Devin Vassell also thought about challenging Gobert for about a second before also sending the ball out again. Dejounte Murray took a step in and then dribbled out to the 3-point line as Gobert nodded his head as if to say “good choice.”
The funny thing about the play: It ended with Murray hitting a contested interim shot. No one will remember that part. Heck, the Spurs probably did not.
“When some guys push the ball and they think they get an open layup and all of a sudden they get blocked or they see me and they think it might be better if they don’t shoot it, I think it’s demoralizing, “said Gobert, who had 24 points and 15 rebounds Monday night. “And for us, it does the opposite. I think we feed it, and whenever there is such a game, whether it’s me or anyone else, it’s a momentum game.”
It set the stage for what was a dominant team defense effort in the first half on Monday.
There’s probably nothing equivalent to throwing a no-hitter in the world of basketball, but Jazz may have come close to that.
I explain: The Jazz Defense is designed to stop shots at the edge and shots from the 3-point line. The whole of Utah’s goal is to force opponents into ineffective (but controversial) shots from the middle class.
Here’s what San Antonio’s first half – shot chart looked like:
San Antonio was 0-for-7 from the 3-point line and 1-for-6 at the edge. Yes, the Spurs’ (31-33) love affair with 20-foot jumpers helped the Jazz limit their shots at the edge and from 3; but even with that, you would expect some sort of layup from a quick break, a tip in after an offensive rebound, a random 3 – anything that wasn’t in the midfield – to go in a little more often. Into the last minute of the half, the Spurs had not yet taken a shot in the areas that the Jazz wanted to take away.
Jazz was a possession away from achieving the feat of limiting San Antonio to no points at the edge or behind the arc (a feat they probably had no idea about – they do not pour shot cards on the bench at all) when Keldon Johnson grabbed an offensive rebound and wanted it to Murray for a layup with only 23 seconds left in the half.
It broke the hearts of basketball nerds everywhere. OK, that’s probably a little hyperbolic, but it ruined what would have been one of the weirdest shot charts in the modern NBA. Alas, the historical footnote was gone.
“It’s a difficult one,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said when asked about Spurs’ shooting schedule. “Because when you have really good mid-range shooters, we will not try to just give up mid-range shots, we will make them tough. I think they broke an NBA record last year from mid-range.”
He credited Gobert and Derrick Favors for coming out and contesting shots and for Utah’s wings for crashing and grabbing the defensive boards as they did so. San Antonio had only two offensive rebounds in the first half.
And while the Spurs, as usual, made a lot out of mid-sized shots on Monday, there’s a reason the Jazz choose to force teams into them: the math favors that approach. The Jazz led 60-43 at the break despite the Spurs making over half of their interceptions. And while the Jazz prevented San Antonio from getting to the edge, Utah got there abundantly himself.
M # TakeNotepic.twitter.com/tXoErCH6eu
– utahjazz (@utahjazz) May 4, 2021
Gobert was 10-of-14 at the rim to score his 24 points, and Bogdanovic was 3-of-3 in the restricted area on his way to a game-high 25 points.
The two teams meet again on Wednesday at Vivint Arena.
Playoff update: With the victory, the Jazz (47-18) once again move up to number 1 in the Western Conference – but enjoy it while it lasts. Utah is half a game ahead of Phoenix (46-18) by virtue of having played another game. The Suns, who own the tiebreaker against the Jazz, play the humble Cavs Tuesday.