Jazz Win Fifth Straight by Downing Spurs in San Antonio 120 – 111

February 3rd, 2018 | by Clint Johnson

Despite leading the league in opponent points per game, the Spurs couldn’t stop Ricky Rubio, whose career-high 34 points and 9 assists led Utah to its fifth straight win. (Recorder Online/Darren Abate)

Story of the Game

The Utah Jazz managed a burst of wins earlier this season without their All-NBA center, Rudy Gobert. Coming into this game, they had won four in a row without their presumptive leading scorer entering the year, Rodney Hood. Tonight against their long-time conference nemesis, the San Antonio Spurs, they faced the daunting task of overcoming a new challenge: winning in arguably the hardest venue in the NBA without their most impressive and important player this season, leading Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell.

At the end of the night they’d won their fifth straight game and all it took were two career highs.

The first came from Ricky Rubio and was easy to call from nearly as soon as the game started. Rubio, who has vacillated from unreal hot shooting to mini epoches of icy bricks, reverted to the stunning efficiency with which he started the season. He made his first nine shot attempts, including going two of two from three, on his way to an incredible 23-point first half.

Catalyzed by the Spaniard’s excellent play, Utah’s offense, which has been steamrolling opponents lately, kept stride with their point guard, scoring 61 in the half on torrid 58 percent shooting.  

But the Spurs sit third in the West playoff standings despite lacking MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard for a reason. They know how to maximize their talent, especially at home, and kept the game close. In the second half, they steadily narrowed the gap, in large part thanks to LaMarcus Aldridge, who methodically worked his way to 31 points on 63 percent shooting, nearly all of it jumpers. 

The Spurs managed to inch closer in the third, outscoring the Jazz 29 to 26. In the fourth, Utah’s offensive composure cracked. Missed shots and turnovers stalled the offense, and San Antonio burst through the gap thanks to a trio of threes by Patty Mills and Danny Green.

All night, the Jazz had managed to head off runs by the Spurs with consistent, timely scoring. Previously this season, when the team needed a bucket they put the ball in Mitchell’s hands despite his rookie status. In his absence, it was another rookie, Royce O’Neale, who became an even less likely hero than Mitchell himself.

O’Neale smacked down Spurs runs over and over down the stretch. The 33 percent three-point shooter made two huge, momentum stalling threes. He even took on Mitchell’s confident mannerisms, bobbing his head and gesturing past a defender after nailing the second three.

Yet with a minute and a half left and the lead cut to three, the Spurs fanbase was on their feet as their team brought the ball up the court. With all the momentum in the building with the home team, O’Neale made the play off the game by stealing a skip pass and sprinting down court for a huge dunk.

While Jazz free throws down the stretch kept the game out of reach – and helped Rubio reach a career-high 34 points – it was that steal and dunk that won the game. After that play, the Spurs looked beaten.

Don’t look now but the Jazz are winning. Against great teams (Spurs, Warriors, Raptors) and poor (Suns, Kings). At home and on the road. In blowouts and nail biters. Even both games of a back to back where airplane problems get them to the second game at six in the morning and their most dependable player rests with the flu. This team is on a roll! 

Stars of the Game

Superstar: Ricky Rubio (34 points, 9 assists, 3 rebounds, 3 threes, 9 free throws)

The most impressive thing about Rubio’s night is that he mustered his career high in scoring deliberately. With Mitchell unavailable, everyone in the Jazz locker room knew putting enough points on the board against the league’s stingiest defense would be the key to a chance to win. Rubio was amazing, making his first nine shots and all but single handedly propelling the Jazz to a lead they never relinquished. Best of all, he didn’t revert to playing de facto scoring guard in the process. Instead, he continued to orchestrate a potent Jazz offense, dishing out a team-high nine assists, his third straight game with at least that many. Right now, he’s everything Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey hoped for when he traded for him during the offseason. 

Secondary Star: Royce O’Neale (18 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, 4 threes)

Even Rubio’s career high wouldn’t have been enough to win this game without O’Neale. The 24-year-old rookie was awesome on both ends of the floor. While Alec Burks started the game and Hood was an easy suspect to pick up missed scoring off the bench, it was actually O’Neale who effectively filled in for Mitchell, playing 32 huge minutes on the night. His three pointers were daggers as he made every shot, four for four, including two down the stretch. The Jazz have a well-earned reputation of taking fringe NBA prospects and turning them into not only rotation players but into highly valued starters. DeMarre Carroll and Joe Ingles each earned massive contracts based on skill development as Jazz players. O’Neale just had a game that cemented him as likely on that same path to a long and lucrative NBA career. 

Secret Star: Raul Neto (12 points, 3 assists, 1 rebound, 1 steal)

While Neto missed all three of his attempts from long range, uncommon for him this year, he compensated by joining in the Jazz’s parade to the hoop, earning six attempts at the stripe and making all six. In his 20 minutes of play, Neto joined O’Neale as they only players off Utah’s bench to manage a positive plus-minus.

Stats of the Game

122.6 – Utah’s offensive rating this game. That’s nearly 10 points per 100 possessions better than the league-leading Warriors on the year. They did that in San Antonio without Mitchell.

36 to 18 – The free throw advantage enjoyed by the Jazz (they made 30), which can happen when your best offense is LaMarcus Aldridge and Patty Mills shooting jumpers.

51 – The teams’s combined assists on their combined 83 made baskets, 26 dishes by the Jazz and 25 by the Spurs. This was a well-played game.

94.7 – Utah’s defensive rating with Derrick Favors on the floor, a full 10 points per 100 possession better than any other Jazz player.

1 – Lead changes in this game that Utah controlled from early in the first quarter on.

Sundries

  • These teams are truly fraternal franchises, what with the mutual influence they have exerted on each other for decades, and it showed. The two offenses showed remarkable similarities for much of the night, including a few times where a play run on one side of the floor was essentially repeated by the other team immediately after.
  • Gregg Popovich met Rubio with a huge, authentic smile after the game, congratulating him on his career game. He can be as surly as Bill Belichick when he wants, but he can also be so much more likable.
  • Burks and Hood both struggled, combining for five of 15 shooting and 13 points. If someone had told Snyder his top shooting guards would play like that in Mitchell’s absence, I’m sure he would have been certain this game goes in the loss column.
  • There are some old dudes in the NBA right now and the Spurs seem to be collecting them. Tony Parker’s 35, Pau Gasol’s 37 (and looking it), and Manu Ginobili is 40 (and not looking it at all). They can still contribute though, especially Parker (11 points, nine assists) and Ginobili (13 points, 3 assists). But their age will really hurt this team come playoff time, especially should they match up with an Oklahoma City or Minnesota team stacked with young athleticism.
  • It’s worth emphasizing how much the Jazz are relying on rookies right now. Donovan Mitchell has been playing more minutes, and taking more shots, than any player on the team. Tonight with Mitchell out, it was O’Neale Snyder tapped to bring the game home, which he did. Eric Spoelstra (my preferred choice) or Brad Stevens will likely win Coach of the Year, and deservingly so. But what Quin Snyder has done this season, given the loss of Gordon Hayward in free agency, injuries to Exum and Gobert, and integrating Rubio to an already rare combination of two traditional bigs in Gobert and Favors, has been remarkable. Take note: he’s managing to put together a playoff push by turning the 13th pick in the draft into an All-Star caliber talent and a fringe NBA guy into a player who can close games on both sides of the ball down the stretch of games. He is, quite simply, one of the best coaches in the league, bar none, and has made Salt Lake City a Mecca for player development.   

Five straight wins is exciting, especially when three of those come against Golden State, at Toronto, and at San Antonio. This team is making a furious push for the playoffs but with only 30 games left, the question is whether they have enough games left.

The Clippers should have a hard time holding off a healthy Utah, especially if they deal Lou Williams as is so frequently rumored. But the Nuggets aren’t falling off and look to get Paul Millsap back after the All-Star break. The Pelicans may have lost DeMarcus Cousins but still have the all-world talent of Anthony Davis and their trade for Nikola Mirotic shows how determined they are to make the playoffs. Making up three games in the loss column to the Nuggets or four to the Pelicans will be a difficult prospect.

But the way the Jazz are playing now, I guarantee neither of those teams is comfortable with where they now sit – especially given that the Pelicans will welcome a red-hot Jazz team into their building on Monday. A win there could make the end of this season very interesting indeed.   

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson is a professional author, writing educator, and editor. He teaches writing at Salt Lake Community College. A frequent presenter at both writing and educational conferences, he writes about the Jazz as a break from his other writing work.
Clint Johnson

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2 Comments

  1. Paul Johnson says:

    Wahooo!! It’s fun to be a Jazz fan right now.

    Trade Rodney Hood for Tyreke Evans, and shoot for the NBA finals.

    • rvalens2 says:

      Uh no. The Jazz need a stretch-four more than they need Tyreke Evans.

      If the decision was up to me, I would make a deal to bring Dario Saric to the Jazz. The 76ers have some interest in Hood and Saric would be a perfect fit in Quin Snyder’s offense.

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