On an otherwise ordinary Monday night in Salt Lake City, with the NBA’s regular season spooling down, the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns played a game that jumped off the page due to its intriguing interplay of subplots.
The Jazz are headed to the playoffs and looked like it, winning 125-92. The Suns are headed to the Zion Williamson lottery and looked like it, losing their fourth straight. Other than that, the only significance of the game was its impact on Utah’s evolving postseason positioning.
That just left more room for Rudy Gobert of the Jazz and Devin Booker of the Suns to do their thing.
If you love the dunk, you obviously adore Gobert, Utah’s 7-foot-1 pillar post. Gobert attacks the rack like he’s starving and the backboard is a buffet table.
Not only did Gobert score a season-high 27 points, he set the league’s single-season dunk record.
“Jazz PR told me before the game that I was one dunk away, so I knew it was going to be my first dunk was going to be my record,” said Gobert. “I could have made the first one, but I laid it up, just to keep suspense.”
The record slam went down off an alley-oop from Donovan Mitchell in the second quarter. It was Gobert’s 270th jam of the season. That’s the highest total since the league began tracking them in 2000, which makes you wonder how many Wilt Chamberlain must have had in his career.
Until Gobert, Dwight Howard’s 269 dunks in Orlando in 2007-08 was the standard. You figure Gobert is good for at least 300 this season with eight games remaining this season. He’s on pace for 305.
“I’m not rushing like I used to, and my teammates are doing a great job finding me. When I’m able to finish and draw fouls, it gives them more confidence to pass me the ball,” Gobert said. “Compared to last year. … I have way more lobs, way more high passes this year, and it puts me in a great position to finish. It’s a great offensive play. It’s hard to guard, it puts a lot of pressure on the defense.”
Gobert is averaging a career-high 15.5 points and 12.9 rebounds. And considering his repertoire, it’s no surprise that he leads the league with a 66.3 field goal percentage.
What helps Gobert is the strong guard play in Utah. They dished 31 assists on Tuesday. Hey, when you have guys like Ricky Rubio (6.1 per game) feeding you it’s hard not to leave full.
“We’re an unselfish team. We move the ball. We share the ball, and we play together,” said Joe Ingles said. “We’ve never worried about someone shooting too much or not enough.”
Gobert dunked six times in the game and averages 3.7. That has kept him ahead of his closest competitor, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmo, the Greek Freak. He had 262 dunks prior to Tuesday. Houston’s Clint Capela had 205.
“They have to pick their poison,” said Gobert said. “It’s fun to win, and it’s fun to get dunks. It’s fun to get 3s, too, but it’s all about sharing the ball.”
While the Jazz were dishing, Booker was swishing. He scored 59 points, enough to actually keep the Sun in the game until the fourth quarter. Don’t blame Booker for the Suns failures. He’s scored 35 or more 13 times this season, a Suns’ single-season record.
And truth is, there weren’t a lot of guys around to help him. The Suns were missing four players averaging 55 points between them. Booker broke a record for most points scored at a Jazz home dating back to 1991-92 when Karl Malone scored 51 on Dec. 9, 1995.
“I’ve been saying on these 30-, 40-point games I’ve had that, I’ve left 50, 60 points on the table a lot,” said Booker. “Just made some shots today that I feel like I’m going to make moving forward. It’s been a tough season for me, shooting-wise behind the arc and I finally got some to fall tonight.”
Problem was, Booker’s pursuit of 60 points quickly became an obsession for the Suns and that bothered the Jazz. He originally left the game with about four minutes to play with 56 points. Then he was subbed back in with 2:57 to play and the Suns down by 31.
Understanding what was going on, the Jazz did what they could to prevent it and the Suns countered by fouling the Jazz on their own side of the floor to buy Booker as much time as they could. Booker ended up hitting a technical and then a jumper with 1:31 left in the game.