The Oklahoma City Thunder should be used to seeing Rudy Gobert in a nice suit. Over the course of the season, the Utah Jazz center had to make too many sartorial choices that fulfilled the NBA’s dress code for injured players on the bench.
Gobert was again dressed to the nines for Russell Westbrook and company Monday night, sporting a slim-cut black jacket with a pink pocket square to match his shirt. This time, though, Gobert was in the seat he preferred, one on the podium after another playoff victory.
Gobert notched a double-double (16 points, 10 rebounds) in his team’s Game 4 win over the Thunder, a victory that has the Jazz one win away from eliminating OKC and advancing to the second round. Utah’s 3-1 lead in this series is a mirror image of its 1-3 performance against the Thunder in the regular season — and the well-dressed Frenchman is perhaps the biggest reason why.
“We’re definitely a different team. We’re more connected. We were going through a little bit of a struggle when we played them the [last three times in the regular season],” star rookie Donovan Mitchell said. “… But it’s a lot easier when you’ve got big fella back there.”
Gobert either was limited or sidelined by injury for all three of his team’s regular-season losses to OKC. Gobert was on a minutes restriction as he worked his way back from a right knee injury when the Jazz lost to the Thunder on Dec. 5. Gobert was sidelined completely by a left knee sprain when the Jazz lost on Dec. 20 and 23.
It’s clear now how much the Jazz missed him then.
The Jazz allowed more than 110 points per 100 possessions in their three regular-season losses to the Thunder. Utah is allowing about 101 in the postseason with the presumptive Defensive Player of the Year now waiting at the rim.
The Thunder’s offense starts and often ends with Westbrook, who loves to slice to the rim for easy buckets or a chance to kick out to a teammate on the perimeter. Gobert’s presence in the paint, however, has disrupted so many of OKC’s bread-and-butter looks.
“I’m just trying to protect the basket,” Gobert said. “He’s a guy that’s one of the best in the league at attacking the rim. When you run back, talk to your teammates and protect the rim, he has to make decisions. That’s the only thing I’m trying to do: make him think and make the tougher decision.”
Westbrook decided to make too many of those decisions on the fly in Game 3, jumping and getting caught in the air without a good outlet. The Thunder point guard, for all the attention on his guarantee that he would shut down Utah’s Ricky Rubio in Game 4, also had plans for Gobert.
“Just attack, put him in position where he has to make a decision,” Westbrook said after Game 3. “He’s just sitting underneath the basket, so we’ve got to make him pay.”
Westbrook made a concerted effort to get to the rim Monday night. He had scored 14 points on drives in the first three games of the series, according to the NBA’s tracking data. He scored 12 in Game 4. Even so, Westbrook’s averages are off his regular-season mark (8.1 points and 49.6 shooting on drives during the regular season versus 6.5 points and 43.5 percent shooting in this series), and it has resulted in a 3-1 lead for the Jazz.
Gobert reminded Westbrook of his presence early with a first-quarter swat of one of the Thunder star’s drives. On Westbrook’s next field goal attempt, he sliced to the hoop only to have Gobert alter his attempt just enough that it rolled harmlessly off the rim.
“Believe me, I’ve tried in training camp and he let me know real quick that it’s not easy,” Mitchell said about attacking Gobert in the paint.
Gobert has managed when Thunder coach Billy Donovan has spaced the floor with 3-point threat Patrick Patterson at center, and he has held his own against the size and strength of OKC’s Steven Adams. As much as Westbrook keys his team’s offense, Gobert does the same for Utah’s defense.
“When you’ve got the defensive player of the year protecting the rim, it makes your life a lot easier,” Mitchell said. “… Having him back there gives us confidence to pressure the ball.”
Joe Ingles can live in Paul George’s hip pocket like spare change. Ricky Rubio can go nose-to-nose with the explosive Westbrook. Mitchell and Royce O’Neale can take a step closer to their marks on the perimeter.
And if they get beat, Mitchell said with a chuckle after Monday’s win, “It’s like saying, ‘Good luck. Good luck down there. Try it.’”
JAZZ AT THUNDER
When • 7:30 p.m. MST Wednesday
Where • Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City
TV • NBATV/ATTSN
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Series • Jazz lead, 3-1
Last meeting • Utah won 113-96 (Monday)
About the Jazz • Forward Jae Crowder was ejected from Game 4 for a flagrant foul on Steven Adams. … The Jazz have won three consecutive games in the series. … Utah had six players score in double-figures in Game 4. … Donovan Mitchell became the first rookie since Brandon Jennings in 2010 to score at least 30 points in a playoff game. … The Jazz have scored at least 100 points in every game in the series.
About the Thunder • Paul George is averaging 27.3 points per game during the series. … Russell Westbrook recorded 13 turnovers in the last two games. … Thunder forward Carmelo Anthony missed all six of his 3-pointers in Game 4. … The Thunder had just 10 assists in Game 4. Westbrook averaged 10 assists per game this season. … OKC went 5 of 26 from 3-point range in Game 4, its worst shooting performance of the series.