Houston • Royce O’Neale’s challenge has gotten tougher.
In the Western Conference first round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Utah Jazz rookie had to guard Thunder star Paul George for the bulk of two weeks. But Sunday was a different beast.
Thrust into the starting lineup with Ricky Rubio out due to a hamstring strain, O’Neale served as James Harden’s primary defender in a 110-96 loss in Game 1, the first postseason start of O’Neale’s career.
“I’m used to a bigger role with Ricky being out,” O’Neale said. “I just tried to go out there and make the right plays. I just wanted to make plays that help my team win.”
O’Neale played well in spurts, scoring four points in 28 minutes with four assists and three rebounds. There were times he played perfect defensively against Harden, and yet Harden still made the shot. O’Neale also was a part of Utah’s run that allowed the Jazz to pull within 11 points in the fourth quarter.
But O’Neale has to be more of a threat offensively, because the Rockets were able to hide Harden on him defensively. He turned the ball over twice, and missed both of his 3-point attempts.
Still, O’Neale’s main focus going forward will be his ability to contain one of the NBA’s most dangerous offensive weapons. And if Harden continues to play like he did in Game 1, going 7 of 12 from 3-point range and scoring 41 points, winning will be difficult for the Jazz.
Avoiding a scare
The Jazz say star rookie Donovan Mitchell is healthy after turning his ankle in a second half collision with Houston guard Eric Gordon. Mitchell initially laid on the floor in pain, then hopped up quickly and walked the injury off. He was re-inserted into the game a short time later.
“He’s fine,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “If there were any danger, we wouldn’t have put him back into the game.”
Put to the side
Much like Mitchell and George in the OKC series, Mitchell and Houston point guard Chris Paul have something of a big brother-little brother relationship. When the Jazz eliminated the Thunder on Friday, Paul sent Mitchell a congratulatory text message, then added the two will talk only after the semifinal series is finished.
“It’s all competition,” Paul said. “It’s never anything personal.”