It’s good to have a game like that after all I’ve gone through this season. —Jazz guard Dante Exum
SALT LAKE CITY — Closing games has been the Utah Jazz’s Achilles heel lately.
Entering Friday’s home game against Memphis, the Jazz had dropped three of their last five contests by slim margins, including a heartbreaking 97-94 loss to the Boston Celtics on Wednesday.
That wasn’t the case this time around, though.
In the heat of an intense Western Conference playoff race, Utah closed out a 107-97 victory versus the Grizzlies.
Dante Exum and Donovan Mitchell combined for 16 points in the fourth quarter as the Jazz outscored the Grizzlies 27-21 in the final 12 minutes.
Exum went off for a season-high 21 points, three assists and three boards while shooting 8-for-10 from the field in just his eighth game back from missing the majority of the season with a left shoulder surgery.
“It’s good to have a game like that after all I’ve gone through this season,” said Exum, who finished one point shy of his career high. “It obviously boosted my confidence and I know what I can bring to this team.”
As Exum’s conditioning improves, he continues to showcase his lightning speed, strong defense and ability to make plays off the bench.
With Ricky Rubio out due to left hamstring soreness, Jazz coach Quin Snyder decided to start rookie Royce O’Neale in his place and let Exum play a season-high 27 minutes.
“He’s been steadily playing better, which you would expect as you come back, and there’s been flashes of what he did tonight,” Snyder said. “He hasn’t played as many minutes because there hasn’t been the opportunity, but when Ricky was out we’re confident in what he can do.
“Just to come out and play the way he did after being out for so long, your timing is different, your confidence is different, but he ignited our team.”
Mitchell also finished with a team-high 22 points, four assists and three rebounds while going 7-for-15 from the field. For Mitchell, the game marked his 42nd contest with 20-plus points to lead all rookies.
The Jazz led by as many as 17 in the game, but allowed the Grizzlies to stick around largely due to the stellar offensive play of Marc Gasol. He went off for 28 points while hitting all but one of his 12 field goal attempts, but was held out of the fourth quarter by Grizzlies interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff.
“We gave our young guys an opportunity to play,” Bickerstaff told the press after the game. “Deyonta Davis and Ivan Rabb worked their tails off, so we gave them an opportunity to play.”
Davis and Rabb would combine for just four points, seven rebounds and two blocks on the night.
Jazz center Rudy Gobert certainly noticed a difference with Gasol out of the game, but was happy to break the two-game home losing streak.
“It changed a lot,” said Gobert, who finished with nine points, 10 rebounds and a pair of steals. “Marc Gasol is a very good player on both ends, so we had to focus on us and do what we do.”
Gasol started 6-for-6 from the field and 3-for-3 from behind the arc for 15 points in the first half to help the Grizzlies stay within five entering halftime. Gasol missed his lone shot off a 3-point attempt at 7:54 in the third quarter but nailed a career-high six triples for the game to become the league’s third player to score at least 28 points in 24 minutes or less this season. Not playing in the fourth quarter is still a mystery.
“The ball went through the hoop,” Gasol said. “Guys found me when I was open. Obviously, once you get into a little bit of a rhythm it’s harder to stop.”
Joe Ingles tied a career-high with 10 dimes while contributing 17 points and five rebounds. O’Neale came up big with 13 points, six rebounds and four assists while Derrick Favors added 10 points and six rebounds.
Utah (43-33) has jumped to seventh place on the Western Conference standings after the win and will travel to Minnesota to face the Timberwolves on Easter Sunday.
Exum continues to feel better and better with each game under his belt.
“Feeling good,” Exum said. “Hopefully win some more games and make this playoff push.”