Detroit • Dante Exum absorbed an errant opposing elbow late in the first quarter, doubled over, checked out and headed to the locker room, causing every member of Jazz Nation to hold their breath for the oft-injured point guard.
When he returned minutes later and headed for the scorer’s table to check back in, all seemed well, a disaster averted.
Until a second-quarter crossover from the Piston he was guarding caused him to lean the wrong way, his ankle to buckle, and him to collapse to the court.
Once again, he gingerly walked off the court. But this time, he would not return, ruled out for the rest of the game just minutes later with a sprained left ankle.
Exum’s injury was a blow to the young Aussie, considering he had dramatically stepped up his level of production in recent weeks. However, it was a more immediate blow to the Jazz, considering he had played integral minutes in the second unit that rallied the team back from an 18-point deficit.
“We just wanted to get up and down, get a better pace to the game. We were playing a little slow on the back-to-back — that was a factor early in the game. But we just wanted to keep playing with pace,” said Jae Crowder. “Dante did a great job of pushing the pace. We tried to get a run there when we got down big early.”
First, Exum found big man Derrick Favors with a nice pass, and the big man converted with an and-one. Then he made an aggressive drive into the lane to collapse the defense before kicking it out to a wide-open Ricky Rubio for a corner 3.
In 8 minutes, 8 seconds of action, he attempted just one shot (and made it), and two free throws (which he also made) for four points, but he also displayed the ever-improving court vision that had once again made him a staple of the rotation, as evidenced by his five assists against zero turnovers.
In all, he was a plus-9 on the court against the Pistons.
The Jazz wound up within five points at halftime, largely thanks to the bench.
While the Jazz’s second unit was clearly superior in the first half, seeing Exum go out, as well as Thabo Sefolosha — who also went out in the second quarter with a hamstring injury — had many thinking the depleted depth would play a role in the second half.
Except Utah’s bench wound up outscoring Detroit’s 28-13, and the Jazz emerged with a 110-105 win thanks to the next-man-up mentality.
“We didn’t make it easy on ourselves … but our whole group had [persistence],” said coach Quin Snyder. “Our whole group had it — especially two guys that really gave us a lift in the first half, in Thabo and Dante. [They] get banged up and have to come out of the game, and everybody just stepped up.”
Exum was unavailable for comment after the game. The Jazz said both Exum and Sefolosha would be evaluated further Sunday.