Jazz’s Royce O’Neale draws the toughest assignment in the postseason — trying to make life tough for James Harden

Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) drives against Utah Jazz forward Royce O'Neale (23) during the first half of Game 2 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series in Houston, Wednesday, April 17, 2019. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Royce O’Neale has had the most difficult homework assignment possible throughout this first-round series. And he knows that when Quin Snyder calls for No. 23 to spring off the Jazz bench, No. 23 knows exactly what he’s being sent into the game to do: that’s do his absolute best to try and pester the most talented offensive basketball player on the planet.

“You know, he comes in, and he plays his ass off,” said forward Joe Ingles.

The second-year guard has no choice. In this first-round series against James Harden and the Houston Rockets, O’Neale is being tasked with making life uncomfortable for the reigning league MVP.

“That’s our preferred matchup on James. They know that. It’s not a secret,” Snyder said. “That’s a lot to ask a lot of a guy, a second-year player, that’s continued to improve … being available and ready to do that in a situation and then having, in a different context, having a different role and being able to process that and not letting that distract you from doing your job and playing to your strengths.”

Snyder’s referenced how O’Neale’s role during the regular season isn’t as pronounced as when the postseason rolls around and the 6-foot-6 guard is suddenly thrown into the fire of facing the NBA’s most elite player with a ball in his hands.

“His size makes it easier for him to do the things I was talking about as far as not getting bumped off as much, not fouling, he played with as much force as anybody,” Snyder said.

O’Neale has averaged 23 minutes per game off the bench in the first three games of the series, more than any other Jazz player. As a rookie last year, O’Neale’s role expanded, too, as point guard Ricky Rubio missed the second-round series against the Rockets. So he’s had experience facing Harden.

“Last year was the first year [and] not knowing what to expect, it’s a whole new season [in the playoffs],” O’Neale said. “Having last year under my belt, me and Donovan [Mitchell], we know what to expect now. We know we have to bring more effort than everybody else.”

Shots weren’t falling

Quin Snyder told media members pregame Monday night that the Jazz, according to the NBA analytics formula Quantified Shot Quality (QSQ), had been getting better shots than any team so far in the NBA postseason. Thing is, however, they weren’t falling. The Jazz were 27 of 106 on 3-pointers through the first three games of the series.

“We’re getting open looks,” Snyder said. “You can’t stop taking them thinking those shots are not good shots. They are.”

Houston Trailblazer

Mike D’Antoni was asked Monday to compare how leading his game-changing Phoenix Suns teams of the 2000s to these Rockets and their unique style of play under Harden. D’Antoni was one of the innovators of shot distribution and spreading the ball around and expanding the game to beyond the 3-point arc with regularity. Some core principals carried over.

“Well, it’s easy now because we have analytics that it makes sense to do that,” he said. “Before we didn’t have analytics, we were just kind of going by our gut.”