SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Tough defense has reemerged as a staple for Utah. It starts with Rudy Gobert.
Gobert has seemingly regained the edge he possessed last season when he won NBA Defensive Player of the Year honors. His attitude and energy is spreading to his teammates and turning the Jazz into a nightmare matchup for most opponents once again.
Gobert totaled 18 points, 14 rebounds and a season-high seven blocks to lead Utah to a 117-96 victory over Portland on Tuesday night. He spearheaded a defensive effort that resulted in the Trail Blazers shooting just 39 percent from the floor and become the 11th Jazz opponent to fail to reach 100 points this season.
“Our mindset has changed over the last few games,” Gobert said. “We want to play defense and we’re having fun playing defense. It changes the way we play.”
Gobert’s seven blocks were three more than his previous season-high, which he tallied on four occasions. The Jazz center described himself as giving 200 percent in the game and Utah coach Quin Snyder felt like Gobert made his presence felt over the entire court.
“It’s what we need from him,” Snyder said. “He can still protect the rim and also be impactful on the floor.”
Donovan Mitchell added 19 points for Utah. Joe Ingles chipped in 15 points, seven rebounds, and five assists for the Jazz.
Utah (17-18) won for the fifth time in their last six home games while shooting 55 percent from the floor. The Jazz have won 10 of 11 games this season where they have shot 50 percent or better as a team.
Damian Lillard score 20 points to lead Portland. Evan Turner added 12 points off the bench. The Blazers (19-15) lost to Utah for the second time in five days after trailing nearly the entire second half by a double digit margin.
“They’re a really good defensive team,” Lillard said. “They make you work on the offensive end. You got to compete on the offensive end.”
Jae Crowder scored seven of Utah’s first nine second-quarter points, starting with the team’s first 3-pointer of the game, to cap a 9-0 run that gave the Jazz a 33-26 lead. The Blazers pulled within three on three different occasions. Lillard hit a couple of baskets to cut the deficit to a basket, then fed Jusuf Nurkic for a layup to trim Utah’s lead to 43-40.
The Jazz pulled away before halftime behind hot shooting from the perimeter. Ingles and Crowder buried back-to-back 3-pointers to spark a 16-5 run. Mitchell finished it off by beating the shot clock with another outside basket, giving the Jazz a 59-45 lead.
Utah went 5-of-7 from 3-point range in the second quarter after going 0-of-8 in the first quarter.
“We know how we want to score and how we want to attack these guys,” Crowder said. “We believe in our shots. We believe in the work we put in.”
The Jazz extended their lead to 68-51 on back-to-back baskets from Ricky Rubio early in the third quarter.
Portland chipped away at the lead and finally cut it to 92-83 on a floater from Seth Curry early in the fourth quarter. That’s as close as the Blazers got.
Gobert answered with a dunk to push Utah’s lead back to double digits. It sparked a 14-2 run that slammed the door shut on any potential comeback. Mitchell punctuated the run with a 3-pointer, putting the Jazz up 106-85 with 4:49 remaining.
Mitchell thinks Utah is ready to turn the corner heading into the new year because the team is learning how to finish games defensively.
“We’ve been in this situation at the beginning of the year and we didn’t have a counter-punch,” Mitchell said. “Now we’re adjusting and making that counter-punch. It’s similar to what we had last year. And we have more. We have more to us.”
Playing on Christmas day is a rare occurrence for Utah. The Jazz played for just the seventh time on Dec. 25 and improved to 5-2 on the holiday. Their previous game on the holiday came in 1997 when John Stockton scored 24 points to lead the Jazz to a 107-103 victory over Houston.
C.J. McCollum finished with only 11 points on 4-of-14 shooting against the Jazz. McCollum came into the game averaging 19.8 points in his last four games against Utah. The veteran guard has scored at least 20 points in 154 games since the start of the 2015-16 season, which is the 13th most in the NBA in that span.
“He affects shots and his presence affects shots,” Portland coach Terry Stotts on Gobert’s play keeping the Blazers from finishing at the rim.
Blazers: Lillard did not attempt a free throw. He came into the game ranked fourth in the NBA in free throws made and eighth in the league in attempts. … Portland scored 14 points off 17 Utah turnovers. … The Blazers made just 35 baskets against the Jazz for the second time this season.
Jazz: Gobert has logged a double-double in nine of his last 10 games against the Blazers. … Dante Exum matched his season-high with 15 points off the bench. … Utah shot 13-of-21 (61.9 percent) from 3-point range over the final three quarters.
Blazers visit the Warriors on Thursday.
Jazz host the 76ers on Thursday.
More AP NBA: www.apnews.com/NBA and www.twitter.com/AP_Sports