Being the two rookies on the team, the two young guys, we know we’ve got to stick together. —Utah Jazz rookie Royce O’Neale
SALT LAKE CITY — Down the hall, then down another hall, on the same floor of the same Utah complex is the distance that separates Royce O’Neale’s apartment from Donovan Mitchell’s.
You’ll likely ever see one without the other.
The Utah Jazz teammates are frequently popping up on each other to experience life together in Salt Lake City as rookies.
On Sunday, the duo can officially add another chapter to their growing friendship as they head into their first NBA playoffs series together against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Game 1 is set for 4:30 p.m. MT on April 15 in Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“Being the two rookies on the team, the two young guys, we know we’ve got to stick together,” said O’Neale, who averages 5.0 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists. “It’s basically us doing outside stuff together, hanging out, playing video games together, eating everybody’s not around so we stick together, creating that bond and then that creates good chemistry on and off the court.”
Mitchell and O’Neale aren’t the only Jazz first-timers entering the postseason. Ricky Rubio is also joining the club. He never reached the playoffs or won more than 40 games throughout his first six seasons in Minnesota and now the Jazz are the fifth seed, holding a 48-34 record.
“It’s exciting,” Rubio said. “I’ve played big games during my career but not in the NBA playoffs so I’m looking forward to it.”
In preparation for the first round series, the Jazz held a 3½ hour practice session on Friday before they hit the road Saturday to begin the series against OKC on Sunday.
Mitchell, O’Neale and Rubio have all been solid contributors to a Jazz team who has posted a 29-7 record since Jan. 22.
Obviously, Mitchell is the first rookie scoring leader for a playoff team (20.5 points) since Carmelo Anthony in 2003-04 while Rubio has called this season the best of his career as he averages a career-high 13.1 points, 5.3 assists and 4.6 rebounds.
Snyder is sharpening the minds of these key guys to get them prepared for what they may see in Oklahoma City.
“It’s usually a process and you can only do so much before Game 1,” Snyder said. “You have to be selective about what you can potentially do from a preparation standpoint and from a tactical standpoint, per se. I think one of the biggest things for us is just being prepared mentally.
“That is something for a group that hasn’t been together collectively for them to understand that as a new group but we’ve got some guys with playoff experience.”
Jae Crowder, Rudy Gobert, Joe Ingles, Jonas Jerebko, and Derrick Favors are some of the Jazz members who have experienced the postseason atmosphere. Ingles isn’t planning to hold Rubio, O’Neale or Mitchell’s hands to walk them through what to expect, but he plans to offer tidbits when necessary.
“You learn what you can get away with early,” Ingles said. “For me, obviously last year being my first one, just being out there and just learning.
“You see the first few possessions how they’re going to call it, see how aggressive you can be, you want to see the more aggressive team and I’m more than happy to pick up an early foul to kind of set that tone to where that level is.”
O’Neale called it a great feeling to even be in this position to game plan for a playoff series after starting the season so poorly, nine games under .500 (19-28). Mitchell and O’Neale didn’t find out until recently that Rubio had never played in the NBA playoffs, either. With that being said, the OKC matchup doesn’t scare any of those guys. More than anything, they’re ready to roll the balls out and get to work. Experience is the best teacher.
“I’m comfortable against any team but I think the biggest thing is how the game plan for us will be a lot different than it was the first four times we played them,” Mitchell said. “We’re more connected as a team now than we were before but we’ve got to watch the film of how they played and understand their system, understand their plays and we’ll be locked in.”