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Rudy Gobert continues to stifle, tower over opponents

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert defends against a layup by Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016.
Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert defends against a layup by Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Quin Snyder didn’t hesitate with an answer when an out-of-town media member recently asked him to name the biggest key to the Utah Jazz’s defense.

The reporter barely got the last word out of his mouth when the Jazz coach blurted out his response.

“Rudy Gobert.”

Snyder has also elaborated on the importance of having the wings play solid defense. In fact, he challenged Gordon Hayward to continue to guard at a high-intensity level, insisting that it’s contagious and critical for the team’s success.

But make no mistake. The success of this Jazz defense, which is currently ranked No. 3 in the NBA, is predicated on The Stifle Tower.

“One of the things about defense is you have to have players that embrace it,” Snyder said. “I think we’ve got a few guys that do that and other guys maybe whose awareness or their identities aren’t as tied to it, like anything. I feel the same way about a team playing unselfishly. It’s habitual as it becomes more of an identity. That’s something that we’ve tried to start with Derrick (Favors) and Rudy.”

It’s uncertain when Favors will return from the bone bruise in his knee, but in the meantime Gobert is taking his smothering presence to another level. He’s as annoying to opposing offenses as a younger brother who won’t leave older siblings alone when they have friends over.

Just ask his recent opponents.

While responding to a question about the Jazz’s hot shooting in Tuesday’s 120-101 win over the Rockets, Houston guard Eric Gordon couldn’t help but talk about the Jazz’s 7-foot-1 monstrous menace who calls himself “Gobzilla.”

“Gobert, he changed things a little bit for them, you know,” Gordon said. “He is so big and long. He rebounds and then they just had it going in all ways tonight. … He did a good job.”

Gobert forced the Hawks into an even rougher night last week. Atlanta scored only 68 points in a blowout loss to Utah, and Dwight Howard was all but a no-show against the Jazz’s feisty Frenchman.

“Gobert defensively around the basket, in the paint, he’s effective,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He alters a lot of shots.”

“That’s probably the worst layup display we’ve had for a while,” Atlanta power forward Paul Millsap added. “Good shot-blockers do that. He’s a good shot-blocker.”

Gobert had five blocks in Friday’s win. He’s averaging 2.5 swats an outing, which is second-most in the NBA behind the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis.

Gobert is leading the league in field-goal percentage, by the way. He’s hitting a remarkable 63.4 percent of his shots while averaging a career-best 11.1 points with very few (if any) plays called his way.

Add in Gobert’s 11.1 rebounds per game and a plus/minus rating of plus-7.1 in 31.0 minutes per game, and you’ve got yourself one heck of a center.

“I don’t want to get into too many superlatives with him. At the same time, I want to be very complimentary when a guy plays at that level,” Snyder said. “Some of the things he is doing is he is just getting from play to play. You don’t have those moments where he is distracted about something else that’s happened on the court.

"As a result," the Jazz coach continued, "his focus is so consistent when that happens. For any of us, you just become much more formidable (when focused). You don’t take plays off and I think that’s what we’re seeing. We are seeing some more maturity and I think it will continue.”

To his credit, Gobert defers part of the credit to his teammates while insisting he’s doing his job and “just trying to protect the basket.”

Gobert’s effectiveness in pick-and-roll defense allows other Jazz defenders to spend more time on their own guys on the perimeter, something that was evident Tuesday when Utah held Houston and James Harden in check.

Hayward recognizes the importance of Gobert in helping to guide the Jazz to wins while limiting opponents to league lows in points (93.8) and field-goal shooting percentage (42.3).

“It just makes us a better team,” Hayward said of Gobert’s impact after the Houston blowout. “Rudy anchored that defense for us. He is getting offensive rebounds, too, and putbacks. That’s huge for us. It’s a momentum-shifter. It gets the crowd into it, as well. He was good for us.”

JAZZ NOTES: Utah will look for its fifth straight win Thursday when it hosts Miami, which played in Denver on Wednesday night. ... It's uncertain whether starting shooting guard Rodney Hood will be available. He left Tuesday's game with a strained right hamstring. ... The Jazz beat the Heat 102-91 at American Airlines Arena a couple of weeks ago. ... Utah didn't practice Wednesday after winning three games in four nights, including back-to-back victories Monday and Tuesday.