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How the Spurs survived the Jazz with Rudy Gay at center

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San Antonio beat one of the best teams in the league while giving Rudy minutes at the five.

NBA: Utah Jazz at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs pulled off an upset victory over the Jazz on Wednesday behind a simple strategy with a surprising wrinkle. The key idea was simple: Rudy Gobert doesn’t get to dunk. Bigs would contest if in position to do so, but any time the Jazz’ All-NBA center got the ball close to the rim, the Spurs were willing to commit a hard foul to put him on the line. Gobert ended up taking 18 free throws, the 2nd most he’s ever taken in a game, and made just half of them. His 9 misses were especially painful for the Jazz as they amounted to more than the difference in the game.

That’s not an especially creative strategy, as Gobert is shooting 61.1% from the line this season but making 72.8% of his attempts in the restricted area. The math, needless to say, checks out as long as those fouls don’t turn into and-1’s. The Spurs did an excellent job in that department, as Gobert earned 8 shooting fouls on the night, but didn’t get a single one of those shots to fall.

It may seem odd to point to a defensive strategy in a game where the Spurs allowed 125.7 points per 100 possessions, but the interesting part of that strategy is that it allowed the Silver and Black to rely on extremely small lineups and still survive. After playing just 3 possessions at the 5 this season prior to Wednesday night’s game, per Cleaning the Glass, Rudy Gay was the Spurs’ biggest player on the floor for 18 minutes against the Jazz, including 8 and half minutes matched up with the 7’1” Gobert.

That Rudy was able to hold his own in what by all rights should have been a massive mismatch in the Jazz’ favor made him the home team’s most important player in this game (non-DeRozan division). But it may not have been the Spurs’ original plan. When Jakob Poeltl picked up his 2nd personal foul just 2:32 into the game, he was replaced with Chemezie Metu. Mezie played the 5 for the next 6 minutes until Gobert checked out of the game, but then never got back on the court. At that point Rudy shifted over to center, a position he would share with Jakob for all but 2 minutes of the rest of the game.

It’s a bit surprising that Chimezie and Trey didn’t get more run in the middle, but Rudy is a little heavier and appears to be significantly stronger than either of them, both key attributes when fighting a big man like Gobert for position. He also showed himself to be much more disciplined in executing the scheme. On Chimezie’s very first defensive possession, he gave up an easy tip dunk by chasing a block, and both he and Trey struggled to keep Gobert off the boards.

Rudy didn’t have to fight with Gobert in his first stretch in the middle, though he anchored the Spurs’ defense well enough to earn that opportunity. More importantly, with Rudy at center, the Spurs’ offense came alive, scoring 21 points in 6 minutes of game time bridging the 1st and 2nd quarters. Still, it was a surprise when Rudy checked in for Jakob after a Jazz timeout with a little over 4 minutes to go in the 1st half and Gobert still on the floor.

The Spurs used their zone defense to mask the size disadvantage and, for the most part, it worked. The Jazz got the shots that defense is prone to give up, but weren’t able to punish the Spurs inside enough to force a change. The visitors won those 4 minutes, shrinking the lead from 12 to 8, but for a Spurs’ team without another viable option at center, that’s a small victory.

It’s difficult to describe both how difficult and how important a play like this is:

There just aren’t many 6’8” players who can win that battle with Gobert. It’s a one-on-one contest to pull down a rebound against a player whose standing reach is 9’ 7”. Just rooting him out of the restricted area requires a ton of leverage and force, and to then be able to elevate enough to grab the rebound is just as challenging.

The Spurs’ Rudy didn’t win all those battles by himself, though, he got a lot of help.

As strong as Rudy is, Gobert is backing him right down into the paint. But Rudy puts up enough fight that Patty Mills is able to swoop in for the steal.

The Spurs let the Rudy on Rudy crime resume for 2 minutes late in the 3rd quarter and once again for 3 more minutes in the middle of the 4th. As at the end of the 2nd quarter, the Spurs lost each of those stints, but each bought Jakob enough rest to come back in ready to battle.

Rudy’s contribution was especially remarkable considering his on-going slump from deep. Despite missing all 6 of his three point attempts, Rudy put up 10 points on 11 shooting possessions with 4 assists. More importantly, the Spurs offense scored 42 points on the 36 possessions where Rudy played center, a key reason they were able to keep pace with the Jazz.

The Spurs could have easily lost this game, obviously. Relying on missed free throws is rarely a good plan over the course of an entire game, but in this case, it worked out. As the season progresses, assuming Rudy’s three point stroke returns at some point, his ability to play spot minutes at the 5 could be an interesting development for a Spurs team whose only defense at the moment is a good offense.