The Nets (25-35) are dragging. After a blowout loss to the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday, the team put forth a feeble effort Friday night against the Phoenix Suns; despite numerous turnovers and poor shooting throughout, the Nets were still in prime position to win the game, up 91-76 with 5:45 remaining in the game. But alas, those late-game jitters kicked in, and they were only able to manage one more point the rest of the way. That’s right, one point in the last 5 minutes and 45 seconds. The Suns would go on to win 108-100 in overtime while putting a dent into the Nets’ playoff mojo.
Tonight, the Utah Jazz (25-36) come into town, winners of eight of 11 games and six of eight since they shipped out Enes Kanter to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Nets fans surely remember the trade, because it manifested after talks with the Thunder front office broke down while discussing a Brook Lopez-for-Reggie Jackson based swap. Once the Pistons got involved, the trade subsequently went three-fold with Utah and Oklahoma City at the February 19th trading deadline. Now, more than two weeks later, the trade’s greatest benefactor has been… Utah! Only because Rudy Gobert, aka “The Stifle Tower,” is in the starting lineup. And oh boy, has it paid off.
Since the beginning of Gobert’s official tenure in the starting lineup, the 7’1” Frenchman has averaged 10.4 points, 13.5 rebounds, and three blocks per game. During last Tuesday’s 92-83 road win in Memphis, Gobert pulled down a career-high 24 rebounds to go along with 15 points, including a dunk and salute that was returned by teammates. The correlation of Gobert’s raised minutes with the Jazz’s defensive performance since the break is no coincidence.
Before the All-Star Break (and Kanter trade), the Jazz gave up 98.2 points a game and 106.1 points per 100 possessions, fourth-worst in the league. In the eight games following the break, the Jazz have given up a stingy 83 points per game and just 88.5 points per 100 possessions, by far the league’s best defense in that time.
Of course, it’s not all Gobert’s doing and Kanter’s absence. Gordon Hayward, Elijah Millsap, and Joe Ingles (to name a few) are all playing defense at a high level, and ex-Nets prospect Derrick Favors complements Gobert’s skillset nicely with his rebounding and inside game.
In Friday’s loss, the Nets shot 21-for-55 (38.1 percent) in the paint against a Phoenix team who managed only two blocks all game. There were no imposing big men forcing missed lay-ups, many of which were from the restricted area and undefended. Tonight, a convergence with a suffocating Jazz defense could be a perfect storm that could swallow the Nets whole while they scramble for answers.
Lionel Hollins will probably not be looking at film from their last trip to Utah for any answers. Back on January 24th in Salt Lake City, the Jazz shot 53.2 percent led by Hayward’s 24 points en route to a 108-73 smack down of the Nets, who were without an injured Deron Williams. The Nets shot just 38.7 percent from the field and lost the battle on the glass 43-29 including 12 rebounds from the aforementioned Gobert.
Williams, the ex-Jazz All-Star, has trended downwards since those encouraging performances after the break which saw him pile up 27 assists in two games. On Friday, Williams’ leadership and command of the offense were non-existent as reflected in the numerous poor decisions and continuous misfires (2-for-16 shooting).
Watch out for: Due to a bigger frontline and apparent fatigue from Joe Johnson the past three games, Cory Jefferson should see more playing time at power forward after an impressive performance on Friday. In just 16 minutes, the rookie forward racked up 12 points and 13 rebounds (7 offensive) and sparked the 23-7 run that put the Nets ahead in the fourth quarter. Utah has out-rebounded their opponents in 11 straight games, so it should come as no surprise if Hollins goes away from the smaller lineups he’s used recently.
Tip-off is at 6:00 PM E.S.T. at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.