Tramel: Attacking Rudy Gobert proved quite profitable for OKC Thunder
Shai-Gilgeous Alexander drove to the basket Saturday, and like usual when the opponent is the Utah Jazz, the French Resistance stood sentry at the basket.
You know. Rudy Gobert. The man who 143 days ago stopped the NBA.
Don’t blame Gobert. If it hadn’t been him, someone else would have produced the NBA’s first positive test for coronavirus and stopped America in its tracks. But it was Gobert, missing in action on March 11, resulting in no game that night in Oklahoma City and none anywhere for 4½ months.
Saturday in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, the Thunder was back. And so was Gobert, the 7-foot-3 center whose basket protection is no less a Utah cornerstone than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
And in that first quarter, Gilgeous-Alexander drove straight at Gobert. The Thunder’s young star appeared to be headed for the left side of the basket, only to bend his body and flip in a right-handed circus shot. Which often is the only way to score on Gobert.
To say it was worth the wait isn’t quite accurate. An NBA championship might not be worth a wait this long. Seems like forever since we’ve had a ballgame that most Oklahomans cared about.
But it was fun. A 110-94 Thunder rout of Utah that renewed the hope of spring, that this upstart OKC roster could do what none of the post-Kevin Durant Thunder teams did. Win come playoff time.
The Thunder was sharp and aggressive. The defense suffocated the offense-challenged Jazz, and the offense scorched Utah’s proud defense. The latter was symbolized by the constant attacking of even Gobert.
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Chris Paul, a good 15 inches shorter than Gobert, hit a 10-footer early over Gobert’s skyscraper reach. Then came SGA’s scoop shot. Steven Adams hit a hook shot going one-on-one with Gobert. Finally, Gilgeous-Alexander scored on a repeat of his earlier drive, only this time he kept going and scored over Gobert using a left-handed shot.
It made for a giddy Thunder first half: a 66-42 lead, the most points scored against the Jazz in a half since 2017. It made for a giddy fan base. Hard to remember now, but optimism flowed back in March; the Thunder was a homecourt win over Utah from climbing into fourth place in the Western Conference.
Now, three days into this Disney World bubble, the Thunder is a game-and-a-half out of third place.
Before the game, Billy Donovan admitted he was excited – he didn’t show it, of course, he never does — about an August restart, and now you know why. This Thunder team looked immaculate.
“First half, I was really pleased,” Donovan said. “We played with really good energy on both ends of the floor.”
We’ve been talking about how the drama-free Thunder should hold up well in the strange environment in Orlando. Good to see that theory pass its first test.
OKC won without a monster individual game. The big five — Paul, SGA, Adams, Danilo Gallinari and Dennis Schröder — combined for 81 points, led by SGA’s 19, and combined to make 29 of 49 shots. Best of all, much of that damage was done against Gobert. Score on Gobert, you can score on anybody without Los Angeles in front of their name.
The Thunder led by 29 in the third quarter, and the score became respectable late only when OKC seemed to lose interest, as is the NBA norm.
“Credit to Oklahoma City,” said Utah coach Quin Snyder. “They made it hard. They made it really hard.”
A bubble blowout was a nice start for the Thunder. Before the pandemic, OKC buttered its bread with close win after close win. Elite teams don’t walk such a tightrope. Popping the Jazz was an excellent sign for the rest of August.
Sounds funny to be talking about August and basketball. But it also sounds funny to talk about the Thunder attacking Rudy Gobert, who turned back the likes of Russell Westbrook and Paul George. But Gobert didn’t resist this Thunder gang, and the Orlando bubble looms as quite a fun ride for OKC.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at oklahoman.com/berrytramel.