This is nothing new to Royce, so it’s great to watch him just mature, and it’s really a coming out party for him because he’s doing what he’s been doing, but everybody is just now going to get to see it. —Vicente Reid
HOUSTON — It wasn’t until Sunday morning that Royce O’Neale learned he would be starting in place of injured Utah Jazz guard Ricky Rubio for Game 1.
Growing up nearly 200 miles away from Houston’s Toyota Center in Killeen, Texas, the rookie wing was faced with the difficult challenge of guarding MVP front-runner James Harden.
Even after Harden lit him and the Jazz up for 41 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, O’Neale remains confident.
He faced a similar situation in the first-round series versus Oklahoma City, where Paul George erupted for 36 points and seven rebounds in the playoff opener.
By Game 6, George was slowed down, ending with just five points and six turnovers. O’Neale’s defensive adjustments in the OKC series included film study and more aggressiveness, which will have to carry over to keep up with Harden.
“I got the first playoff game out the way, I think that was the most nervous one, but now I’m just comfortable with it and I’m just going to go play hard, play with a lot of confidence,” O’Neale said.
A host of O’Neale’s family and friends were sprinkled throughout the arena, including his longtime friend Phelan “Phelo” Curry in Section 125 and his mother, Deborah Kingwood, sitting courtside.
O’Neale owns a home roughly 15 minutes away from the Toyota Center and has a lot of support in the area.
But even after the first Thunder game when George went off, Curry noticed a few haters via social media.
“I saw people saying things like, ‘Who mans is this?’ and other smack, but now he’s on to the next round and they want to ask for tickets and all this and that, but it’s not happening,” Curry explained.
Royce O'Neale's uncle Vicente Reid attended Sunday's game at the Toyota Center in Houston on Sunday. | Eric Woodyard, Deseret News
O’Neale’s uncle, Vicente Reid, was another relative in the stands wearing an autographed Jazz jersey. Even as Utah loss, 110-96, Reid is happy to witness the journey of O'Neale evolving from a boy to a man, so he didn’t bother him with a ticket request but purchased his own instead.
“This is a crazy experience because I’ve watched Royce grow up,” Reid said. “I’ve seen him grow up from playing AAU to playing high school to playing college at Denver to playing at Baylor then playing overseas for two years, so his maturation he’s ready for the moment.
“This is nothing new to Royce, so it’s great to watch him just mature, and it’s really a coming out party for him because he’s doing what he’s been doing, but everybody is just now going to get to see it.”
O’Neale could continue to receive extended minutes with Rubio possibly out for up to 10 days with his left hamstring strain. Dante Exum and Alec Burks are others who are logging more minutes in his absence, but they have to step up.
Burks, Exum and O’Neale combined for 19 points, five steals and eight assists on the night, with O’Neale making four of the thefts with four points and four assists in 28 minutes.
To O’Neale’s credit, his defense on Harden was a little better in the second half, but he still posted 21 points and five rebounds on 6-for-15 shooting. His teammates admire his courage, even as the odds are stacked against him while facing a team as talented as Houston with the responsibility of defending Harden.
“I think he adjusted well once he figured out how the game was played,” Jazz forward Jae Crowder said. “I’m sure it was a shock to him, but I think he did well.
“I think he’s going to continue to get better for us as the series goes on,” Crowder continued. “I think the nerves will be out of him in Game 2, if there were any, and I think he will be better. I think he did a great job of making it tough and making adjustments in the second half.”