Royce O’Neale’s defense on Jamal Murray has changed Jazz-Nuggets series. Can he keep it up?

(Ashley Landis | AP) Utah Jazz's Rudy Gobert (27) celebrates with Royce O'Neale (23) during the first half of an NBA basketball first round playoff game against the Denver Nuggets Friday, Aug. 21, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

The question to Joe Ingles Saturday afternoon centered around the ability of the Jazz to defend Denver Nuggets star guard Jamal Murray, especially over the last two games.

Before the interviewer could finish the question, Ingles interrupted to make a clarifying point.

“I haven’t guarded Jamal Murray at all, let’s be honest,” Ingles said tongue-in-cheek on a Zoom call, less than 24 hours after the Jazz blew out the Nuggets to take a 2-1 lead in their Western Conference first-round series.

Ingles may have been joking, but there was more than a hint of truth to what he said. With Royce O’Neale in foul trouble, Murray torched Ingles and the Jazz down the stretch of Game 1 in a 135-125 overtime win. In Games 2 and 3, O’Neale has taken on a leading role in defending Murray, and the tenor of the series has completely changed.

After shooting 13-for-20 from the floor and 6-for-9 from 3-point range in Game 1, Murray is 11-for-29 and 3-for-10 since. Furthermore, according to NBA.com’s advanced stats tools, in the team-leading 8:53 O’Neale has guarded Murray in the series, Murray has not even attempted a shot.

“Oh, it’s been years of Royce doing this, it hasn’t been two games,” Ingles said of the undrafted veteran, who agreed to a four-year, $36 million contract extension in January. “Royce is physical. He’s annoying at practice to play against because he does the same thing to us. He’s extremely annoying, so you sort of feel the pain for whoever he’s defending. He’s done it since he got to the Jazz. He’s physical, he doesn’t take a play off.”

Added Donovan Mitchell: “He’s been an X-factor, for sure. Royce has just made it tough on him and I think that’s the biggest thing, trying to find ways to make it tough. He got going a little bit early and last game, Royce took it as a challenge and tried to step up.”

With home-court advantage and traveling on days between games not a factor inside the Disney bubble, the Jazz have assumed control of what was billed as one of the more-intriguing first-round series across the league. O’Neale has neutralized Murray, while Rudy Gobert has largely outplayed another of the NBA’s elite big men, Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets, meanwhile, have shown no ability to slow down the high-octane Jazz offense, which is averaging playoff league-highs in points per game (124.3), field-goal percentage (50%), field goals made per game (44.7).

Gobert aside, if O’Neale can deal with Murray twice more this week, it will go a long a way to steering the Jazz to the Western Conference semifinals for the third time in five seasons.

“The biggest thing is, can we do it again?” Mitchell said. “It’s good to see Royce out there doing his thing and I’m happy for him, but the biggest challenge is can he do it again. To be able to do it again, and again, and again, because that’s what we’re going to need out of him and everybody else on the team. They’ll be ready for Game 4, so it’s on us to raise our level as well.”