Rudy Gobert is a prideful player. Not in the Joel Embiid or Draymond Green sort of way, where pride occasionally leads to stupid/selfish decisions on the court and hot takes at the podium.
No, Gobert takes pride in winning, playing at his very best and, yes, being recognized for playing his best.
With that being known, it’s also quite likely that The Stifle Tower is more than a little troubled with the memory of his last playoff matchup with the Houston Rockets. Not only did he and the Jazz lose in a gentleman’s sweep, Gobert’s reputation took a hit.
Defensive prowess is Gobert’s pride and joy, his baby that he looks after with the ferociousness of a mother grizzly guarding her cubs. Against the Rockets last season, Gobert had his cubs taken away to use the metaphor.
Chris Paul and James Harden abused the pick-and-roll with Clint Capela to torture the Defensive Player of the Year. They also switched onto Gobert and made a mockery of his fledgling attempts at being a capable perimeter defender along with an elite rim protector.
Since that series, the ammo of Gobert critics has been that Rockets series. “He got exposed on switches” they said. “He can’t guard perimeter players” they said. Many even began to wonder aloud if Capela was the better player considering how much the Houston center dominated the matchup. After all, Capela exceeded Gobert in (almost) every major statistical category (they tied for total rebounds).
Going about a redemption tour will involve several steps Gobert will need to adhere to not just to have an good series individually, but give Utah the best chance to come away with a series win.
Defend the Pick and Roll
This is can’t just be an effort on the part of Gobert. If it is, we’ll be seeing lobs to Capela and midrange shots from Harden and Paul for four games as Gobert is forced to pick his poison. Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neale and anyone tasked with guarding Harden/Paul will need to help out.
That being said, Gobert is the defensive master. The paint is his domain and he needs to make that fact clear and deter would-be shot attempts from that part of the floor and into the no-mans land of long twos.
Don’t get exposed on the perimeter
Last year the Western Conference playoffs saw a lot of teams take their best isolation player and switch onto the other team’s worst defender. Utah did it with Mitchell and Carmelo Anthony and the Rockets did it a ton with Harden. Gobert wasn’t the primary target of these switches, but he was a victim a time or two.
Being a 7-foot-1, 245-pound center doesn’t adhere itself to being a dominant perimeter defender and Gobert isn’t known as such. But in this series with Harden isolating more than that one former college player on a churchball team, Gobert will have to stand his ground a few times a game and not foul or give up easy points.
Dominate the matchup with Capela
As for his matchup with Capela, well the young Swiss big has only gotten better since last year. He missed 15 games this season but made a stack of new career highs including points (16.6), rebounds (12.7) and assists (1.4).
Fortunately, Gobert has improved himself as well, also posting career-bests in points (15.9), rebounds (12.9) and assists (2.0) as well as field goal percentage (66.9).
This can’t be a stalemate. If Gobert is to truly cement himself as a star, players clearly below him in regular season production, prowess and impact can’t make him look useless on the court.
Capela will likely put up his numbers, obviously. They’ll probably even be similar to Gobert’s, even better in some games. But it’s when these rebounds and points come along with how the blocks Gobert does get impact future forays by Rockets into the restricted area.