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How Rudy Gobert worked his way back from second knee injury

ATLANTA — Two clear ice packs were stamped on the knees of Rudy Gobert as he fiddled through his phone after Monday’s loss in Philips Arena.

Moments after a 104-90 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the Jazz center needed a moment to regroup while sitting at his locker.

He had just logged 28 minutes, posting six points, 10 rebounds, three blocks and three steals in his third game back since returning from a second knee injury this season.

“I feel pretty good, conditioning was better today,” Gobert said. “I’m feeling better.”

A little over a month ago in Boston on Dec. 15, his Jazz teammates crowded around him in the opening minutes at TD Garden after the big man collapsed to the parquet floor in pain.

Gobert would be forced to trade in his Jazz jersey for tailored suits for another 15 games with a sprained PCL in his left knee and a bone bruise in his tibia after his teammate Derrick Favors accidentally rolled into his lower body.

For Gobert, it was the second time he had to push through a knee injury following his best season as a pro, where he made the All-NBA Second Team in 2017.

His patience was certainly tested throughout the second ordeal.

“The first time it was 11 games, and when it happens again you’re like ‘aw, I just want to play,’” Gobert said. “Watching my team lose is tough.”

A right tibia contusion from a clash with Miami’s Dion Waiters is what he had to endure the first go-round, but he returned in three weeks with a steady plan put in place by Mike Elliott, Utah’s vice president of performance health care, and his training staff.

Elliott’s role was newly created in the offseason, but his medical and sports science leadership has helped the Jazz during an injury-plagued campaign where Gobert, Derrick Favors, Dante Exum, Thabo Sefolosha, Rodney Hood, Joe Johnson, Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell have all been on the injury report at some point this year.

“When we hired Mike Elliott and he hired his staff, we felt like we got the makings of one of the best performance teams in the league,” Snyder said. “Unfortunately, they got put to work pretty quickly, obviously with Rudy and a few other guys.

“Those things are difficult to control.”

Both of Gobert’s setbacks were freak accidents where he prevented the injuries from possibly being worse with the quick reaction to get out of the way. He has a new way to protect himself now.

“Play with my elbows out,” Gobert said, smiling.

Utah dropped to 10th place in the Western Conference standings in his absence, going 4-11 throughout this latest stretch without him.

Getting his body used to contact and regaining his conditioning was one of the toughest challenges, but he worked his way back into shape through intense drills with Jazz coaching associate Desagana Diop and rookie Tony Bradley.

“He’s done everything he can,” said Jazz forward Joe Ingles.

Hanging around the locker room, being present on the sideline and visiting the practice facility during late nights is also how he stayed mentally engaged with the squad.

“He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around,” said Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell. “I came in late last night to get in the cold tub and he was in there getting his hair cut, but he had just worked out just to get back in shape.

“It’s great to see a guy who is obviously the leader of this team go out there and work his butt off to get back.”

Since Gobert’s return, Snyder was expecting to keep his minutes under 25 per night, but his energy has allowed him to average 28.6 minutes in three games. He has looked superb offensively, posting 15 points on 60 percent shooting while grabbing 10.3 rebounds and 3.0 blocks, but the team is 1-2 and still trying to adjust to having him in the rotation, especially on defense.

“Rudy’s got a will to win, and what Rudy’s developing is a will to prepare to win, and that’s something for a young player, you want to go out and compete, you want to win and that’s great, but you have to also want to prepare to win,” Snyder said.

At 25, Gobert refuses to view this stretch of injuries as one of the toughest challenges of his career. He’s playing with confidence and trying to find a way to help Utah break out of its ugly slump, where the Jazz have gone 7-17 since Dec. 1.

Being back isn’t enough, now it’s time to win.

“There’s always challenges,” Gobert said. “It could be injuries, it could be not playing, it can be not playing as good as you want, so there’s always challenges. I’ve just got to keep moving forward.”