It seemingly made sense for the Jazz to start Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors together in the frontcourt on Saturday against the Spurs, considering San Antonio was going with a traditional pair of bigs in LaMarcus Aldridge and Jakob Poeltl.
But the lineup wasn’t working, as the defense was hemorrhaging points early, so coach Quin Snyder decided to go smaller, with Jae Crowder replacing Favors.
Meanwhile, with San Antonio subsequently playing smallball as well, and confusing Utah’s players by running a triangle-and-two defensive scheme, Snyder eventually found a counter to bust the gimmick for good — going smaller still.
At the 8:37 mark, with the game tied 32-32, he went with a lineup of Raul Neto at the point, Donovan Mitchell and Kyle Korver on the wings, Gobert at center, and the 6-foot-6, 225-pound Royce O’Neale as a nominal stretch-4.
That unit immediately went on a 9-0 run, as Gobert got a lay-in off a Neto assist, O’Neale buried an open 3, Gobert threw down a putback dunk, and Mitchell drained a step-back jumper.
“They came out in a triangle-and-two, and were changing defenses a lot,” Snyder explained, “and we just felt that we needed to have spacing out there against the zone.”
That particular five-man group was together more than any other Jazz lineup of the night, and it racked up 18 points in 5 1/2 minutes, while its plus/minus would up as a +8. The Jazz wound up scoring 39 second-quarter points en route to a 20-point win.
Snyder, meanwhile, continued to mix and match throughout the evening, often with O’Neale manning the position that used to be called “power forward.”
A group of Gobert, O’Neale, Mitchell, Joe Ingles and Ricky Rubio totaled 14 points in just less than four minutes together, and was a +5.
O’Neale pretty much wrecked the triangle-and-two single-handedly in the second period, as he nailed three wide-open 3-pointers. For the game, he drained 6 of 7 shots, totaled 17 points, grabbed five rebounds and yielded a +14 in his time on the court.
“I thought it worked well. I thought Royce really held his own,” said Korver. “[The Spurs] were playing pretty small too [at times], and so we were just kind of countering that, but Royce obviously had a great game all around [Saturday], both sides of the ball. He just really stepped up.”
Snyder kept it up in the second half, as Crowder not only started in place of Favors, but the first substitution (at the 7:04 mark) saw him go small yet again — replacing Ingles with Korver, and Crowder with O’Neale.
Favors, who played only 19 minutes as a result of the Jazz frequently going small, noted that recipe for success with that group was simple.
“Just hitting shots. If they weren’t hitting shots, it’d be a different story,” he said. “They hit shots, so it was a good lineup for us, it worked for us.”
Once the Spurs changed up their defense and started closing out hard on Crowder beyond the arc, he countered by driving and either dishing to a teammate left open by a subsequent rotation, or taking the ball all the way to the rack.
“You know, it don’t matter with who [I’m playing] ... [the key is] just having that confidence and being able to guard and play multiple positions,” O’Neale said.
Asked if he felt confident going at the four more often, O’Neale gave a toothy grin.
“I’ll take advantage of it if it happens [again],” he said.
While the Jazz are unlikely to encounter another triangle-and-two this season, Snyder conceded he would be keeping his options open, noting that he saw things he liked from pretty much everyone who logged significant minutes at the four against the Spurs.
“It could be a different guy every night,” he said. “Fav played great, attacking the middle of the zone in pick-and-roll. And obviously, we started Jae in the second half, which we’ve done on a number of occasions this year as well. Every game is different. Royce obviously did a great job.”