Is Rudy Gobert’s big night an indication that the Jazz are learning to punish teams for getting small?

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The center went 8 for 11 both on the field and on the line in scoring a season-high 24 points, and he and his teammates noted there was increased confidence all around to give him the ball .

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) muscles through Detroit Pistons guard Cory Joseph (18) and Detroit Pistons forward Kelly Olynyk (13) during ‘NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Detroit Pistons at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Friday, January 21, 2022.

Although Rudy Gobert’s greatest value remains the centerpiece of his team’s defense, he has never been shy about speaking up when he feels he is being underutilized offensively by the Utah Jazz. Meanwhile, his detractors have never been shy about pointing out that his offensive skills have never developed to the point that he can constantly punish opponents for deploying small-ball lineouts against him.

Except… Friday night’s win over the Detroit Pistons looked a lot like Gobert actually making them pay.

The big man racked up 11 field goal attempts and 11 free throw attempts (and made eight of each) on his way to a season-high 24 points.

When asked if he thought he and the team got better at capitalizing on those storylines, Gobert said yes.

“I think so. I think so,” he said. “I learn from those situations and I’m able to improve.”

Point guard Mike Conley, who often plays with Gobert alongside a trio of reserves against opposing second units, and has therefore developed a close on-field chemistry with him, said he has seen definite progress from center to this regard.

He noted that Gobert has now improved a lot at catching the ball, especially from different angles, and is better than before at adapting to off-target entry passes. Conley also praised the big man’s recognition of the need to keep the ball high after catching it, and not giving defenders the opportunity to take it away by bringing it low. Gobert has also improved a lot as a passer and has been good at returning the ball when locating open shooters.

“We tell him all the time if he can get a good bottom position, especially a deep position under the rim, where he can get his hands high and turn and finish, that’s the ideal position that we want to try to get him the ball,” Conley said. “And we will do that as much as possible. We really try to find it. And teams try to take it off by helping on the weak side, and we end up skipping it for an open 3. So even with that, he ends up helping in this situation.

Of course, given the Jazz’s recent struggles — even with their win over the Pistons they’re still down and have lost six of eight — all is put under the microscope a bit more, and many wonder if the Jazz isn’t doing itself a disservice by not feeding the beast more consistently.

After all, Gobert is averaging a career-high 16.0 points per game with a career-best, league-leading 71.4 percent. He’s also increasingly making teams pay for fouling him, shooting a career-best 68.8% on a career-high 6.9 free throw attempts.

But there were several times against Detroit when it seemed to open up the lane, or seemed to have a smaller defender like Kelly Olynyk or Trey Lyles sealed in, only to not get a pass from a teammate, leaving fans at Vivint Arena screaming at the prospect of missing a surefire bucket.

Despite such instances, the Jazz were keen to note that they are actually very aggressive in getting him into good scoring situations.

“We try so hard to give him the ball. Sometimes at the expense of other things,” coach Quin Snyder said. “…I don’t know if our guys can be more determined to give him the ball. And I know that’s something he appreciates.

Both Snyder and Conley added that the Jazz need to stay savvy about how and when to throw him into Gobert. The coach, responding to criticism that Gobert still too often misses his team-mates, referred to several specific instances – sometimes where one or two potential defenders on the assist side were actually better placed to recover from the big man they did not seem so; others where the timing between the ball handler ready to pass and Gobert ready to receive was just a little off.

“We want to give the ball to Rudy in the situations to be most successful,” Snyder said. “And often, if he has a little on him, and that’s a singular thing, let’s go. But once we faked it twice, there’s a reason we didn’t pass to him.

Yet they believe a real effort is being made to involve Gobert more.

“We’re trying to find a way to reward Rudy, to get the ball back in his hands,” striker Bojan Bogdanovic said. “…We put a few different set pieces on him for when teams start to change or start playing small.”

“We don’t necessarily try to post it every time – that’s just not how we’re built – but we certainly seek it out as much as we can every time it gets a deep seal,” Conley added. . “Guys are doing their best to make those passes. … He was a real force and improved a lot.

For his part, Gobert sees an effort being made and, as Snyder suggested, appreciates it.

Again, to some degree, he sees this as the natural end result of the work he’s done to become a more legitimate scoring threat in the position, especially against smaller opponents.

“For me, it’s huge to have the confidence of my teammates, to see that they’re looking for me, and the coaches try to emphasize that the guys are looking for me. It just gives me more confidence. And then it’s up to me to give them a good target, to have a good position on the rim,” Gobert said. “…I think it’s a really big step for us, and we’ve improved so much this year. It starts with giving them the confidence to give me the ball and then showing them that good things happen most of the time when I get them.

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