Different games call for different roles. I was feeling it and the guys kept finding me, but my first priority is defense. If the offense is flowing, it’s even better. —Jazz rookie Royce O’Neale
SALT LAKE CITY — Everyone has been raving about Royce O’Neale and his defense, particularly his D at the end of Monday’s game, which helped preserve a big Jazz victory.
In Wednesday night’s 107-97 victory over Phoenix, O’Neale showed off his offense, scoring a career-high 19 points and helping the Jazz to their 11th straight victory, sending the Jazz off to the All-Star break on a happy note.
The harder-than-expected win over the team with the worst record in the NBA, moved the Jazz to 30-28 on the season as they take eight days off before coming back for a game against Portland on Feb. 23.
Although coach Quin Snyder often says he’s more worried about the process and the way his team plays, he was quick to accept this victory.
“This was about a win. And we played well enough to win,” he said. The circumstances . . . we knew this would be a tough game and it was.”
The Jazz needed an extra boost Wednesday and they got it from O’Neale, the undrafted rookie who was playing in obscurity in Europe last year. He started his third straight game in place of injured point guard Ricky Rubio and this time he showed his offensive game.
“Different games call for different roles,” the 6-foot-6 Baylor product said. “I was feeling it and the guys kept finding me, but my first priority is defense. If the offense is flowing, it’s even better.”
Snyder noted how O’Neale got two quick fouls in the first quarter, but came back and didn’t let it affect his game.
“He was concentrating and it carried over to the offense end,” Snyder said. “He was able to make some plays and when the ball came back to him, he shot and didn’t hesitate and that’s what we want.”
O’Neale scored 12 of his points in the first half in a variety of ways, including nine in the final four minutes of the first half to help the Jazz move from a tie game to a nine-point halftime lead.
First he drained a 3-pointer from the left angle and followed that with a dunk on the play of the night — a 50-foot pass from Donovan Mitchell from beyond mid-court. Next came a drive off another Mitchell assist and then with the clock ticking down, he spun in the lane and sank a 12-footer just before the buzzer.
That gave the Jazz a 50-41 halftime lead and it looked like the Jazz were ready to run away in the second half. However, the pesky Suns wouldn’t go away and came back to take a 73-72 lead early in the fourth quarter.
That’s when the other Jazz rookie, Mitchell, did his usual fourth-quarter routine when he scored 10 of his game-high total of 24 and added a pair of key assists.
He made a 3-pointer and a turnaround early in the quarter and after the Suns closed within three at 91-88, O’Neale scored on a drive to the basket to give the Jazz some breathing room.
It was still a game at 102-97 with 57 seconds left and the Jazz had the ball out of bounds in front of their bench when Mitchell came up with the play of the night.
The Jazz set up a play for O’Neale to hit Mitchell coming off a screen by Rudy Gobert and it worked exactly as planned. Mitchell caught the ball and in one motion, turned and fired up a 3-pointer that hit nothing but net.
“Just knocking down the shot . . . good pass from Royce, coach drew up a good play and we ran it to perfection.”
Besides Mitchell’s 24 points, Derrick Favors had a double-double with 18 points and 12 rebounds, Gobert finished with 14 points and 17 rebounds and Joe Ingles scored 13 points, all in the first half.
Phoenix was led by Devin Booker, who had missed the last four games with a hip injury, with 24 points. Rookie Josh Jackson added 22 points off the bench, while Alex Len had 14 and Elfrid Payton with 13 points.
Now everyone but Mitchell, who is heading to Los Angeles for All-Star weekend, will get more than a week off before the next game.
Of his buddy O’Neale, Mitchell said, “He’s playing his butt off right now. He’s just got to keep it going. We’ve got a little bit of a break, but he’ll come back stronger than ever.”