As the final buzzer sounded on a 116-108 win over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday, Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell made a beeline toward Dante Exum, determined to reach his teammate before anyone else did.
He made his way through a maze of bodies. Finally, Mitchell found one of the heroes Utah’s Game 2 victory at the Toyota Center, the win that tied what was supposed to be a lopsided series up at 1-1.
The two held a long embrace. Mitchell patted Exum on the head. And then, they turned to celebrate with the rest of the Jazz.
“I’m proud of you,” Mitchell told Exum.
The postseason hasn’t always been kind to the 22 year-old from Australia. He was pushed around a bit in a first round series win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. He had issues protecting the basketball. Not only did he not shoot the ball well, he didn’t want to take an open shot. There were times he looked hesitant, unsure of himself. And by Game 6, a 96-91 win over OKC that propelled the Jazz into the second round, he was limited to three minutes off the bench, a single turnover the only box score proof of Exum’s presence.
On Wednesday, though, Exum was part of a Jazz bench that proved to be game-changing in Game 2. Alec Burks played 22 minutes and scored 17 points to go along with six assists and four rebounds. Jae Crowder continued his excellent play of late, scoring 15 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in 33 minutes.
More importantly, Snyder realized the Jazz needed to play smaller in order to defend the Rockets, and play faster to score on the Rockets. So, Exum, Burks, Crowder and Mitchell played extensive minutes in the same alignment, and Joe Ingles saw plenty of small ball minutes as well.
Offensively, Snyder scrapped his usual sets, the ones that typically take the Jazz deep into the shot clock. Instead, Utah ran a bunch of quick-hitting pick and rolls, taking the Rockets by surprise and setting up dives to the basket and wide open 3-pointers. It’s a direct correlation to Ingles making 7 of 9 3-point attempts.
“We weren’t great on defense,” Houston forward PJ Tucker told reporters on Thursday at practice. “They scored 116 points. That’s wow. We scored enough points. Our defense just has to be better.”
For the Jazz, the question is whether the smaller lineups and quicker pace is sustainable over the remainder of the series. The Jazz simply don’t usually play the way they did in Game 2. So, as the series shifts to Vivint Smart Home Arena on Friday in Game 3, how do the Rockets react?
ROCKETS AT JAZZ
At Vivint Smart Home Arena
Tipoff • Friday, 8:30 p.m.
TV • ESPN
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Series • Tied, 1-1
About the Rockets • James Harden is averaging 31.1 points, 7.9 assists and 5.6 rebounds during the postseason. … The Rockets lost Game 2 despite committing just eight turnovers. Houston is 28-2 this season when committing 12 or fewer turnovers. … Clint Capela has five double-doubles this postseason. … The Rockets shot 53 percent from 3-point range in Game 1. They shot 27 percent in Game 2. … Houston fell to 4-1 at home in the postseason with Wednesday’s loss to the Jazz.
About the Jazz • Utah’s 116 points in Game 2 was its highest point total of the postseason. … The Jazz beat the Rockets for the first time this season on Wednesday, regular season included. … The Jazz have shot 50 percent or better in both games of the series. … Donovan Mitchell is the fourth rookie in NBA history to reach 200 or more points in eight or fewer postseason games. … The Jazz have won Game 2’s in both of their postseason series.
It’s fairly certain to think whatever adjustment the Jazz make, Exum will play a significant role going forward. His roller-coaster ride with the Jazz has been well documented. He missed his second season in its entirety with an ACL injury. He missed most of the current regular season with a shoulder separation and surgery. So, it would’ve been easy for Exum to give up on himself, or for the Jazz to give up on him.
But, neither side did, and it has so far paid of handsomely against Houston. On Wednesday, Exum scored nine points and grabbed four rebounds and handed out two assists in almost 18 minutes off the bench.
His real impact came in the way he guarded James Harden. He was instrumental in the Jazz being able to hold the All-Star to 9 of 22 shooting from the field, although Harden still scored 32 points and handed out 11 assists. Exum, and the rest of the Jazz bench, came up monstrous when Utah needed it most. Exum was Harden’s primary defender on 22 possessions, the most on the team. In those possessions, he surrendered just two points.
“It was tough not playing well against Oklahoma City,” Exum said. “But, I just went and thought to myself that two months ago I wasn’t playing basketball at all. So, I was able to keep my head up. I just had to stay strong.”
But, the Jazz simply don’t win Game 2 without Exum’s defense, important 3-point makes and playmaking. And that doesn’t happen if he doesn’t have the right frame of mind.
“I just wanted to make it as difficult on Harden as I could,” Exum said. “I just tried to stay in front of him and tried to make him take tough shots. I knew he was going score, but if I could just make it a little tougher for him, that was my goal.”
The Jazz organization made it clear to Exum he wouldn’t be taken out of the playing rotation. For one thing, he’s needed. Without starting point guard Ricky Rubio, the Jazz need almost every able-bodied guard on the roster to pitch in and play minutes.
Secondly, the Jazz figured the matchup with the Rockets would be different and more favorable to Exum than matching up with Oklahoma City. Against the Thunder, Exum was forced to handle the basketball against tough veteran Raymond Felton, a shorter and much stronger guard. The Rockets don’t have a guard off their bench who applies that kind of defensive pressure.
So, Jazz coach Quin Snyder and assistant Lamar Skeeter sat down with Exum. They worked with him on film, they advised him on things he needed to do. They realized teams are leaving him alone on the perimeter. Not just open, alone. So, they told him to shoot the basketball, make or miss.
On Wednesday, Exum’s 3-pointer with 7:48 remaining gave the Jazz a 95-94 lead they would never relinquish.
Snyder and Skeeter told Exum to go strong to the basket. Too often he got into the lane and tried to finish a floater or a lay-up, when he had a lane, the leaping ability and an open window to dunk the basketball.
On Wednesday, with 55 seconds remaining, Exum blew by a defender and encountered the rim. He let loose a roaring one-handed dunk, much to the delight of his teammates, putting the Jazz up 114-105 and closing the door for good on the Rockets.
“I’ve never seen him so excited,” Utah center Ekpe Udoh said. “I didn’t even know who he was.”