Rudy Gobert slams, salutes as surging Jazz take out Grizzlies

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Listen, I'm not trying to say I told you so, but ... I mean ... when it comes to the Utah Jazz being one of the out-of-contention teams most worth watching down the stretch, I literally did tell you so.

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That right there is Jazz center Rudy Gobert flashing to the foul line to receive a feed from Utah swingman Gordon Hayward, taking one dribble past Western Conference All-Star starter Marc Gasol, heading into the teeth of the Memphis Grizzlies' vaunted defense, elevating and throwing down an all-arms-and-legs left-handed jam to give Utah a 13-point lead with 41.4 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.

What's even better, though, is what came afterward. Did you catch that?

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After finishing his flush and beginning to backpedal on defense, Gobert looked over to the Utah bench and gave a sharp salute, which was returned by teammates Rodney Hood and Elijah Millsap, who couldn't contain their smiles. And why should they? They've got plenty to smile about.

Not only did the Jazz go into the Grindhouse and impose their will on the Grizzlies — albeit a short-handed version of the Grizzlies playing without the suspended Tony Allen, the ill tandem of Zach Randolph and Beno Udrih and the injured Vince Carter — en route to a 93-82 win, but in the process, they improved to 5-1 since the break, with three of those wins coming over Western Conference playoff teams (Portland, San Antonio and now Memphis).

Stop the presses: the Utah Jazz are pretty good, pretty fun, and pretty tough to beat right now.

This isn't a seismic shock to anyone who was paying attention earlier in the season. The Jazz were a better, livelier team through the first four months than their 19-34 pre-All-Star-break record suggested. Utah looked like a club finding its way in first-year head coach Quin Snyder's motion offense, one that was lining up behind the leadership of fifth-year men Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors, and starting to show signs of a defensive resurgence keyed by shot-blocking, rim-protecting Rudy Gobert. It certainly didn't hurt that the 7-foot-2 French sophomore also looked like he was becoming a pick-and-roll monster with surprising touch and passing instincts who dunked everything in sight, either.

Then, just before the All-Star break, came the trade request from the disgruntled Enes Kanter, who felt like he'd waited too long for a solidified spot as an offensive focal point. Then, just before the trade deadline, came the shipment of Kanter to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for center Kendrick Perkins (whom Utah promptly bought out) forward Grant Jerrett, the rights to 25-year-old FC Barcelona center Tibor Pleiss, the Thunder's lottery-protected 2017 first-round pick and the Detroit Pistons' 2017 second-rounder.

Suddenly, the path was cleared for Gobert to go from reserve-minutes revelation to starting center alongside Favors in what Jazz fans hoped would be the sort of frontcourt that could stifle opposing offenses. Through six games, the results have far, far exceeded expectations.

Before the All-Star break, the Jazz ranked 27th among 30 NBA teams in defensive efficiency, allowing opponents to score 106.1 points per 100 possessions. Since the break — an admittedly small sample, but also the only sample we have to go on for the Favors-Gobert pairing as a starting big-minutes duo — Utah has skyrocketed up the charts, utterly snuffing out the opposition to the tune of a suffocating 87.7 points-per-100 allowed, far and away the stingiest mark in the league.

Teams are shooting a microscopic 39.2 percent from the field against Utah over the past half-dozen games, second-best in the league, behind only Roy Hibbert and Frank Vogel's Indiana Pacers. As you'd expect given an increase in minutes for the Gobert-Favors duo, they've been excellent in protecting the lane, ranking among the league's top half-dozen teams in field-goal attempts allowed at the rim, opponents' field goal percentage in the restricted area, and both second-chance points and points allowed in the paint  per game.

Moreover, with Gobert and Favors locking down inside, the Jazz's wings — Hayward, long-limbed, quick-footed rookie point guard Dante Exum, 6-foot-6 D-League call-up Elijah Millsap, et al. — have been better able to stay at home and take away easy looks on the perimeter. Utah's giving up just 18.3 3-point attempts per game since the break (again, second-best, behind only the Blazers) and they're only allowing a 24.5 percent success rate from downtown, easily the lowest in the NBA during that stretch.

After they force those misses, Utah's cleaning the glass, ranking sixth in defensive rebounding percentage since the break, corralling 77.1 percent of their opponents' misses. When you factor in their bigs-led penchant for cleaning up their own mistakes on the offensive end, the Jazz rise up to second in the post-All-Star NBA in total rebounding percentage, behind only Oklahoma City.

With Z-Bo absent, the Jazz owned the glass on Tuesday, outrebounding Memphis 55-37, as Gobert set a new Grizzlies' opponent record by snagging a career-high 24 rebounds in his 36 minutes of play.

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Tasked with guarding the high-post-oriented Gasol for much of the night, Gobert often found himself pulled away from the rim early in defensive possessions, leading to a rare rejectionless night for the NBA's leader in block percentage. (He's gone without a block just eight times in 59 appearances this season.) But Favors plugged the gap, blocking three shots and altering several others; Memphis shot just 22-for-52 (42.3 percent) in the paint on Tuesday.

And yet, despite all their excellent defensive work, the Jazz actually trailed by a point at halftime, 38-37, thanks to their own inability to generate any offense, as Utah shot 13-for-44 through two quarters. They came alive in the third, though, as Hayward — who'd been in a hellacious slump since the All-Star break, shooting just 35.5 percent from the floor and 20 percent from 3-point range — finally broke free, scoring 13 points on 6-for-8 shooting to tilt the game in Utah's favor.

Hot starts to the fourth by Favors (eight of his 21 points in the frame) and rookie swingman Hood (six of his 13 in the fourth) helped the Jazz extend a three-point lead. An 11-1 mid-quarter run pushed the advantage to double-digits, where it stayed for most of the final 6 1/2 minutes, allowing Gobert to put the afore-video'd exclamation point on the proceedings.

Hayward finished with 21 points, eight rebounds, six assists, three steals and just two turnovers in 35 minutes of work. Gobert added 15 points and an assist to his career-high rebounding total. Exum chipped in a career-high seven assists with three rebounds, two blocks and a steal. Little-used forward Jeremy Evans pulled down seven rebounds in 11 1/2 minutes of work off the bench. Everybody brought something to the table, and it added up to an impressive win over the West's No. 2 seed.

Utah has now won three straight games for the first time this season. After their dismal start, they're now over .500 (16-15) since Dec. 20 and within one game of matching their full-season 2013-14 win total. The starting lineup of Hayward, Favors, Gobert, Exum and fellow Aussie import Joe Ingles has outscored opponents by 24 points in 65 minutes since the All-Star break, a strong number, and that overall defense just continues to improve month after month — from third-worst in the league at the end of November, to 25th out of 30 in December, to 15th (smack dab in the middle of the pack) in January, to the absolute top of the heap since the beginning of February.

The job's not done, of course. The offense remains middling at best. With Exum still very much learning the offensive ropes at the NBA level and former starter Trey Burke a feast-or-famine option depending on whether his shot's falling, the Jazz attack cam become impotent when Hayward's not clicking, especially with ball-handling slasher Alec Burks out for the year following shoulder surgery.

Utah needs more steady playmaking, more dynamism in attacking the basket and more shooting all over the place to field a truly threatening offensive attack, and we'll need to see this meat-grinder defense over a longer stretch of time before we can start penciling in the Jazz as Western playoff spoilers next season. But none of that means we shouldn't get excited about what we are seeing right now.

Gobert is a holy terror in front of the basket on both ends. Favors looks about as good and complete as he ever has. Hayward is starting to make a lot of people who clucked at his max contract wonder if they spoke too soon. The 19-year-old Exum does one or two things every night that make you think he could be one of the best backcourt defenders in the league before he can buy a six-pack.

The Jazz are no longer merely a pack of assets, a collection of theoretically intriguing pieces. They're starting to resemble an honest-to-God puzzle, one that isn't yet finished but that actually looks like it's going to be something, and soon. After several largely aimless years, that sure seems worth saluting to me.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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