Before Game 2, Quin Snyder told reporters the Utah Jazz weren’t trying to isolate Royce O’Neale on offense late in the shot clock, as it happened to do several times in Game 1.
In Game 3, as O’Neale took on P.J. Tucker in isolation, breaking him down for a lay-up, it felt that there was added intention.
Scoring a team-best 17 points in a 113-92 loss to the Rockets on Friday night, O’Neale, Utah’s 24-year-old rookie spot starter, was the one big jolt in a moment where it seemed the Jazz could rally back.
“He gave us a spark offensively: knocking down threes, getting to the rim,” Rudy Gobert said. “It was great. He knows how to be great. That’s the goal.”
While he’s been solid in the Rockets series (9.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.3 apg, 40 percent 3-point shooting), O’Neale’s presence in the starting lineup is a reminder of a key Jazz absence. Utah has sorely missed the play of Ricky Rubio, the team’s best passer.
O’Neale doesn’t do what Rubio does, but he isn’t asked to. All the Jazz ask him to do is extend his same role off the bench into more minutes.
“If these guys [the starters] aren’t making shots, I try to take advantage of what the defense gives me,” he said. “Whether it’s an easy dunk, open three or something like that. And me just running the lane, just being active on offense.”
O’Neale parlayed that mentality into a one-man run in Game 3, scoring seven straight points in the second quarter. All the baskets came on plays O’Neale knows he can make: hitting an open 3-pointer, then back-to-back, coast-to-coast drives where he beat Houston’s defense with pure hustle.
O’Neale, a Texas native who grew up north of Austin, has a straightforward style that has leant itself to more playing time. Snyder first got him on the floor because he could defend, and that evolved into being the first guard off the bench.
When Rubio went down in Game 6 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, there wasn’t doubt who Snyder would start. In part, he appreciates that O’Neale doesn’t treat a starting job any differently than a bench role — which is a trait he tries to mold in the rest of the team.
“It’s one of the reasons he’s been ready when he’s been asked to start, or to come off the bench, or to finish,” Snyder said. “I don’t think that’s necessarily been his focus as much as, ‘I’m gonna play the same game.’”
The hope for Game 4 is the Jazz starters will bounce back, and O’Neale won’t have to take such a leading role. But he will if he needs to.
“I’m just trying to bring a lot of energy,” he said. “Be that guy who helps defensively, whether it’s Rudy, Donovan, Joe and Fav — that starting group. And just be the guy who makes the right play on offense.”