The Jazz, if you haven't been paying attention, are playing some pretty good basketball. They've gone 6-2 since the All-Star break, finally forming an identity that has led them to wins over wins over Portland, San Antonio, and Memphis.
That identity begins on the defensive side of the court.
In the 8 games since the break, which also coincided with the NBA's trade deadline, the Jazz are giving up only 88.5 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. That's by far the best mark in the league over that span, with the Indiana Pacers second at 91.6 and the Milwaukee Bucks 3rd at 95.8.
A big part of that emergence has been the expanded role of Rudy Gobert, the second year, 7'1" Frenchman who was drafted 27th overall in the 2013 NBA draft. Gobert, who started the season playing only 15 minutes per night through November, has averaged 32.7 minutes per game since the trade of Enes Kanter, averaging 10.4 points, 13.5 rebounds, and 3.0 blocks per game during that time.
Gobert's impact was felt last night against the Sixers, as he grabbed 15 rebounds in 35 minutes. According to nba.com, Gobert had 14 defensive rebounding chances, which is the number of times a player is within 3.5 feet of a defensive rebounding opportunity. Gobert grabbed 13 of them.
"I think it's a combination of giving Utah credit, and [it being] one of those nights," Brett Brown said after the game about his team's offensive struggles. "I think that we missed a lot of shots that our shooters normally [make]."
And Brett Brown was certainly correct. JaKarr Sampson shot 1-5, including 1-3 from three. Jason Richardson, two nights after scoring 29 points on 8-19 shooting, shot 0-10 from the field, including 0-4 from three point range. Robert Covington, who is shooting 38.3% from three point range on the season, shot 1-8 from the field in his first game back from a right elbow contusion.
According to nba.com, the Sixers shot only 18-41 on uncontested field goals.
"I thought it was clear that his elbow was hurting him," Brett Brown said about Covington after the game. "He had a very down night for himself. That's not normally his standard.
"As a team I thought that there was something a little bit flat tonight," Brown said about the Sixers performance. "I don't know if it was fatigue, or we were just missing a lot of shots."
Off nights happen in the NBA. Have an off night against a team that is playing lockdown defense and you have the chance for an ugly offensive game.
And an ugly offensive game is what you got. The Sixers shot just 36.4% from the field, only 50% from the free throw line, and struggled from three (the 10-32 they ended the night with was buoyed by three late-game three's within the final two minutes of a game that was already long decided).
However, if there's one positive out of last night's game, it was the Sixers defense. The Jazz aren't exactly a prolific offensive team, ranking 15th in the league in offensive rating, per NBA.com. That offensive rating has dropped a bit since the trade deadline, where they have had the 20th best offense in the league since.
Still, to hold anybody to a 92.7 offensive rating is a victory for a team that has struggled mightily on that end of the court since trading away Michael Carter-Williams and K.J. McDaniels at the deadline. Heading into last night's game, the Sixers 104.8 defensive rating since the All-Star break was the 2nd worst in the league, behind only the New York Knicks.
|Before the break
|Jan 20 -> Break
|After the break
('After the break' stats not including last night's game against Utah. Stats per nba.com)
And it's those defensive struggles that make it tough for coach Brett Brown. The team had built an identity for itself heading into the trade deadline. They had taken a point of emphasis from Brown and turned it into a very legitimate strength. Now, it's hard to be sure what they can truly count on.
On most night's, they've been able to count on their shooting. The Sixers were 4th in the league in three pointers made per game since the All-Star break heading into last night's game against the Jazz, at 10.6 made per game, and their 37.4% shooting from 3 was third in the league over that span. Only Golden State, who made 12.4 per game at 41.8%, were taking more and connecting at a higher clip.
(Side note: It's kind of amazing that, even with that prolific of three point shooting, they were only 24th in the league in offensive rating over that span. 18.1 turnovers per 100 possessions, the 3rd worst rate in the league, will do that I guess. It's also amazing that a team shooting that well from 3 was shooting only 68.6% from the charity stripe, and that's even with Nerlens Noel shooting 75% from the line since the deadlien).
But their three pointers failed them against the Jazz, shooting only 7-29 from three when the game actually mattered. Their struggles to make open shots, ultimately, caused them to waste their best post-deadline defensive performance.
"We chased, I chased, to try to find the right [offensive] group. I just wasn't able to do it," Brown said.
From the perimeter, the bright spots were Luc Mbah a Moute, who scored 14 points on 5-10 shooting, including 3-6 from three, Isaiah Canaan, who shot only 6-15 but did hit on 4 of his 9 three point attempts, and Ish Smith, who scored 14 points on 6-13 shooting, but had 7 assists on the night.
For Mbah a Moute, it was a nice rebound from his miserable 6-21 shooting effort against Oklahoma City. Canaan and Smith combined for 11 assists to 2 turnovers from the point guard spot.
In the front court, Nerlens Noel (10 points, 11 rebounds, 6 steals) continued his stellar all-around play, and the Sixers once again got a nice contribution from Thomas Robinson off the bench, who scored 11 points (5-8 shooting) to go along with 12 rebounds in only 15 minutes off the bench.
For Noel, it continues a string of excellent play. Noel is averaging 11.9 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.1 blocks and 2.4 steals per game since the All-Star break.
Noel has combined for 10 thefts over his last two games. So far this season, only 2 players 6'10" or taller have had 4+ steals in consecutive games: Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel. Noel has accomplished the feat twice in the last 6 weeks.
Robinson, picked up off of waivers after being cut at the deadline, is averaging 8.5 points and 8.3 rebounds in 16.8 minutes per night with the Sixers. His rebounding has been incredible, with a 19.7% offensive rebounding percentage and a 34.9% defensive rebounding percentage, which combines for an absurd 27.0% total rebounding percentage.
|League Leaders - TRB%
|Thomas Robinson (w/Sixers)
(among players with 1,000 minutes played, with the exception of Robinson)
Since Robinson joined the team on February 25th, the Sixers have a 94.3 offensive rating with him on the court, well above their 90.9 offensive rating with him on the bench. Their rebounding when Robinson has played has been practically dominant, with the team having a 31.7% offensive rating percentage and a 78.8% defensive rebounding percentage in the 101 minutes that Robinson has played.
Those numbers, if played out over the course of the season, would be good for the best offensive rebounding percentage in the league (Utah has the best at 29%) and the 2nd best defensive rebounding percentage (Charlotte is the best at 79.8%). Their total rebounding percentage of 54.7% with Robinson in the game would be best in the league, by a considerable margin.
"His energy and his bull-like mentality, his ability to play in a mans world, and the physical side of Thomas Robinson is very impressive," Brown said about Robinson after the game. "I can't help but think that the more comfortable he gets with our structure, and his fitness base, I think he's going to force me to play him more minutes.
"I wanted to bring him back. I got him out at the 8 minute mark of the 4th period with the intention of bringing him back," Brown said. "Then we got down 12 or 14 and it was clear we needed some three point shooting."
The Sixers return to action tonight against the Atlanta Hawks at the Wells Fargo Center.