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The first guy who tried his luck at the rim went flying. Midway through the second quarter Friday night, Wizards forward Markieff Morris' attempt at a dunk was met by the oversized hand on the outstretched arm of Rudy Gobert and flatly rejected, forcing both the ball and Morris to fall back to the earth.
But Gobert's work wasn't finished there.
Earlier in the day, with a slew of cameras and microphones and tape recorders in his face, the Defensive Player of the Year candidate had refused to stump. "I'm not here to make my case," Gobert had said. "… I'll let my game do the talking."
And now, on the court, under the basket, that game sure seemed to have a lot to say, all packed into a 24-second soundbite that would end with the shot clock blaring, an announcement of another failed effort to get by the Stifle Tower. In the course of that one play, Gobert would stop the 6-foot-10 Morris, All-Star point guard John Wall and center Ian Mahinmi.
"I think it's pretty hard to argue against him," Jazz forward Gordon Hayward said.
Gobert has flirted with the Defensive Player of the Year award before, if only lightly. Last season, the center garnered a handful of votes, good for a seventh-place finish. This time around, though, the 7-footer has a serious shot at adding to his trophy case, thought it remains to be seen if Gobert can beat out Golden State's Draymond Green or San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard for the honor.
"I don't see how not," Jazz guard Rodney Hood said when asked if Gobert should win the award. "First-Team [All-Defense] is the last resort."
Gobert certainly agrees, though he wasn't interested in prattling on about his qualifications this week: "There are people that, I think, understand basketball that can hopefully study my case and look at the advanced stats and the impact."
OK, let's crunch some numbers then.
Gobert leads in the NBA in blocks (2.61 per game) and is its most dominant rim protector (players shoot 43.1 percent at the rim with the Jazz center defending the paint). He leads the league in defensive plus-minus. And of the three leading candidates, Gobert has the greatest impact on his team's defensive efficiency numbers: Utah's defense 6.9 points better with Gobert on the court than off it; Golden State's is 6 points better with Green on the court; and the Spurs defense, puzzlingly, is 7.2 points worse with Leonard in the lineup.
Gobert will get a chance to make his case against Leonard, arguably the league's most feared on-ball defender, on Sunday afternoon. Utah will see Green later this month in Oakland.
"Those guys are terrific," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. "I think for Rudy, again, the personal accolades are great. You want for him, because it's affirming and you feel like he's deserving. But at the same time, so are those other guys. It's hard to vote against Kawhi Leonard or Draymond Green. They're so good. I don't know if they can have three" Defensive Players of the Year.
Green is a versatile forward whose ability to guard point guards and centers allows the Warriors to switch more often and more effectively than any other team in the league. In a piece published last week in USA Today, Green said his ability to defend on the perimeter should set him apart from Gobert and others in consideration for the award.
"No disrespect, but I think when you look at today's game, the object is to actually stop the three, as opposed to not giving up a two," Green was quoted as saying.
Gobert isn't taking away the 3-ball by shadowing guards around the arc, but he does it in other ways.
"With our personnel, we're able to shut down pick-and-roll two on two," Hayward said, "and guys are able to stay home."
Hood, who has dealt with a knee injury, certainly appreciates having Gobert around.
"Our defense is built around him," Hood said. "That's our job as wing players really, to take guys off the 3-point line and send them in there. Even if he isn't blocking shots, he deters guys."
If Gobert doesn't claim the award this year, he is poised to remain a leading candidate for years to come.
"I'm still 24," Gobert said. "Defense is a lot about experience, too. I'm learning to make the smart play, not always the play you see on the stats, but the smart play for the team and the winning play."
On Friday night, Gobert flexed and strutted after sending a Bradley Beal layup attempt flying out of bounds. The center, meanwhile, helped bring one of the league's top offenses to a screeching halt with a couple of signature plays that won't show up in the box score.
In the third quarter, Gobert's presence at the rim forced a streaking Wall to abandon his drive, passing off to Mahinmi who had the ball stripped. Gobert finished the play by forcing Morris into a contested look that never had a chance.
"He's been more selfless. … It's not something you think about necessarily with defense, but his willingness to come off his man's body, to come over and help would be one thing," Snyder said.
In another key play, Gobert showed he can move away from the basket when he has to. With 3:30 to play and the Jazz up four on the Wizards, Washington forced a switch, pitting Gobert up against the smaller, faster Beal near the 3-point arc. Gobert managed to stick with the guard, forcing a bad miss from 12 feet out.
The vote for Defensive Player of the Year may come down to what's perceived to be more valuable: Defensive versatility or Gobert's elite ability at the rim.
"I think they're equally important," Snyder said before Friday's game. "We could put Rudy out on a point guard and try to increase the perception of his versatility. He is who he is."
The Jazz believe that he is the best defender in the NBA.
Jazz at Spurs
P At AT&T Center, San Antonio
Tipoff • Sunday, 1:30 p.m.
TV • Ch. 4
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 47-29; Spurs 58-17
Last meeting • A 100-86 win for the Spurs on Nov. 4 in Salt Lake City
About the Jazz • Winners of three straight. … Derrick Favors (left knee bone bruise), George Hill (right groin strain) and Raul Neto (right groin strain) are all out with injuries. … Rudy Gobert anchors the third ranked defense in the NBA.
About the Spurs • Have won six of their last seven games. … Kawhi Leonard is an MVP candidate, averaging 25.9 points per game. … Spurs assistant Ettore Messina and Jazz coach Quin Snyder spent a season together with CSKA Moscow in Russia.