Streaking Jazz Climb the Standings, Bring Exum Back

March 15th, 2018 | by Dan Clayton

Exum elevates for his first bucket of the season. (Game still)

The Utah Jazz added another win to their record and another player to their rotation on Thursday night.

Facing the rudderless and lottery-bound Phoenix Suns as part of a 4-game home stand, the Jazz passed, drove and bombed their way to a lopsided victory, 116-88. It was the club’s eighth straight triumph, including six double-digit wins in a row. And it featured a familiar face.

Dante Exum, the teams No. 5 pick in 2014, got back to NBA action after missing the first 68 games of the season to fix and rehab a separated left shoulder. After a couple of practice stints with the SLC Stars, Utah’s G League affiliate, the Jazz decided their Aussie point guard was ready to go, and he entered the game to applause near the end of the first quarter.

Exum looked predictably winded at times, but his season debut could only be described as encouraging. He moved aggressively, didn’t shy from contact, and defended well both out on the perimeter and when switched onto big men. He played just over 14 minutes and came away with 10 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists. Here was his first bucket of the season, a step-through move after driving from out front.

The most encouraging thing about this play is that, if you watch from the beginning of the drive, the play actually starts with Exum absorbing a hit on his surgically repaired left shoulder. Not only does the contact not faze him at all, but he stays aggressive on the play, going into the defender instead of flinging the ball up while veering away from pressure. It was a gutsy move and one that makes it pretty obvious that he’s not out there thinking about his shoulder every step of the way.

His return was the big story, but there were plenty of stars behind Utah’s dominating performance. Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles powered a second-quarter run that got Utah out of trouble after a rugged start. Phoenix actually led 26-24 early in the second quarter, but a pair of Ingles threes started to turn the tide. The Jazz won the rest of that quarter to the tune of 32-17, capped by Mitchells two dunks and a 3-point basket, all within the final two minutes of the half.

Ingles finished the night with 17 points and four 3-pointers, while Mitchell led the Jazz with 23 points and threw in six boards and four assists for good measure.

Once the Jazz settled down, the biggest drama came in the form of a second-half altercation. Suns veteran Jared Dudley took issue to Rubio trying to quickly inbound while Marquese Chriss was still collecting himself after missing a dunk and falling to hardwood. Dudley pushed Rubio from the side to make his point, and when the two went face-to-face in the immediate aftermath of Dudley’s cheap shot, Chriss got up and delivered a blind push that again put Rubio on the floor. Shoving and shouting ensued as all 10 players, along with coaches, refs and security, melded into a morass. Once everything had been sorted out, Chriss and Dudley were tossed, while the Jazz picked up a couple of technicals (Mitchell and Ingles) for retaliatory pushing and jawing. 

Those were the only high-blood-pressure moments in a second half that otherwise served as glorified exhibition. The Suns did exert a little pressure early in the fourth quarter, but never got closer than 13 back of the Jazz. When they did, threes by Mitchell and Jae Crowder started a 12-1 run, all Utah needed to put the game on ice and coast to their 39th win of the season.

Crowder was big again (15 points, 8 rebounds) and Rudy Gobert remains simply unstoppable. He turned in another 21-point, 13-rebound performance, bringing his averages over this current streak to 19 and 14. No longer just a defensive game-changer, Gobert is finishing pick-and-roll plays in ways we didn’t imagine possible just a couple seasons ago. On Thursday it was against the hapless Suns, whose big men are hardly defensive forces. But since his return from injury, it hasn’t mattered much who he’s facing. Just in this 8-game streak, Rudy has had big games against Andre Drummond’s Pistons, Anthony Davis’ Pelicans and Karl-Anthony Towns’ Timberwolves.

When Rubio wasn’t being used as a piñata, he had a very effective (if not efficient) night as well. He doled out 11 helpers, part of a 29-assist night for the Jazz. Rubio had a ridiculous +43 Net Rating after leading the Jazz to a 124 offense during his 31 minutes. It remains a seeming paradox that Rubio would have the most positive impact on the offense even on a night when he shot 5-for-15 himself. But that’s Ricky’s value. His recent aggressiveness puts so much pressure on the defense that he boosts the Jazz offense whether his shots drop or not. He also played solid defense and swiped four Phoenix possessions with steals.

On the other side of the ledger, Phoenix’s best scorer had a rough night. Devin Booker shot just 3-for-18 and finished with 12 points. He has now converted just 30.9 percent of his attempts vs. the Jazz this season, well below his season mark of 43.6 percent.

TJ Warren and Josh Jackson, second and third in total Suns points this season, picked up some of the slack on Thursday with 19 and 17 points, respectively. No other Sun reached double figures, and the team combined for an 82.6 offensive rating, including 22 turnovers.

Utah’s win brought moved them up a spot in the Western Conference standings. The LA Clippers lost in Houston, giving Utah the chance to jump to seventh. The Pelicans’ loss drops them to just a half a game ahead of the Jazz, and Utah is now within striking distance of a homecourt first round series, just 1.5 games back of fourth-place Oklahoma City.

As we typically do, we’ll reset the full playoff picture in the next Salt City Seven column.

Numbers of note:

  • 73.1: Every Jazz player who touched the hardwood logged a sub-90 DRtg on Thursday. Ingles’ 73.1 was the best among the regular rotation guys. Man, how underrated is Joe as just a complete NBA player?
  • 14+: Only 11 teams in NBA history have won six or more straight games by a margin of 14 points or better.
  • 20: The Jazz won the points in the paint battle by 20 points, 54 to 34. They outscored the Suns by 15 from the 3-point line, too.
Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops, FanRag and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

2 Comments

  1. Tony says:

    “Man, how underrated is Joe as just a complete NBA player?”

    Criminally underrated is the answer. I still can’t believe players go under screens when he is behind the 3 point line. His contract got some stick at the time as too large, and merely Hayward-related, but even in the tight spending environment coming up, it looks like fair value to me. Keep it rolling guys!

  2. Pingback: SC7: Gobert Dominates on Both Ends, Exum Returns, the Playoff Push Intensifies | Salt City Hoops

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