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Utah Jazz prove a point, winning ninth straight on a night when they’re nowhere near their best

Royce O’Neale drops in a career-high 20 points, while Mike Conley and Rudy Gobert swing the momentum in the third quarter for 108-94 win over the Knicks.

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, left, lays the ball up as New York Knicks center Nerlens Noel (3) defends in the second half during an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Last season, the Utah Jazz probably would not have won a game in which Donovan Mitchell and Bojan Bogdanovic combined for 20 points on 5-for-25 shooting.

That’s what those two did Tuesday night, and the Jazz nevertheless surged past the fading Knicks, pulling away for their ninth consecutive victory, 108-94 at Vivint Arena.

This Jazz team, it would appear is different: More offensive weapons, certainly, but also better balance between scoring and defending, and the tenacity to fight through a poor shooting performance.

“People talk about winning ugly, and tonight ‘ugly’ was really pretty,” coach Quin Snyder said afterward.

That’s a pretty succinct summation.

Against New York, Royce O’Neale, of all players, carried Utah through some lean times offensively, scoring seven of their first eight points, then pouring it on in the fourth en route to a career-high 20.

Mike Conley took to heart a pre-third quarter pep talk from Snyder — who pulled him aside and urged him to shrug off an abomination of a half and remain aggressive — and scored 12 quick points in the first five minutes after the break, swinging the game’s momentum.

And Rudy Gobert took personally the Knicks’ high-efficiency first-half scoring, and proceeded to make some minor tweaks on the defensive end that not only constricted the paint, but also sent the message that even on nights when the Jazz’s prodigious and prolific offense is struggling, this is still a team to be reckoned with.

“We kept our focus on the defensive end, we didn’t worry about the missed shots on offense, and all of a sudden we get more stops and [our] shots start falling. It’s really who we are. I think now we we understand it and we embrace it better than ever,” said Gobert, who racked up 18 points, 19 rebounds, and four blocked shots. “And it’s exciting to be a part of a team that takes a lot of pride doing all the little things to be great defensively, because we understand that if you want to be the team that we can be, we have to do those things.”

It started — and ended — with O’Neale.

The Jazz began the game by making just 3 of 17 shots, and going 2 for 12 from deep. Both of those 3-pointers were from O’Neale.

Then, in the fourth quarter, with the Jazz starting to assert themselves, he had a three-possession sequence that put the game out of reach: first, he used some Kevin McHale footwork to work his way into an easy 8-foot jumper; next, he moved without the ball, then cut down the lane and got an assist from Jordan Clarkson for a layup; and finally, he intercepted a pass and took it home for a layup that made it 100-84.

“He’s just a nonstop worker, man,” said Mitchell, who totaled just nine points on 3-fr-15 shooting. “You know, his journey to the to the NBA is different than most, and you just see the consistent persistence and the hard work. So nights like tonight are no surprise.”

Conley concurred.

“I think Royce is like the glue to this team,” he said. “He’s asked on a nightly basis to guard the best players, create opportunities for guys offensively by just driving the ball, certain nights he spots up in the corners and high quadrants and knocks down 3s, and sometimes he just runs up and down the court — just creating havoc, grabbing offensive rebounds, and giving us extra possessions. And that’s stuff that’s vital for us. And he doesn’t go unnoticed by our team. We know how important he is, and tonight was one of the nights he really showed out.”

Still, before O’Neale could close it out, Utah needed to get back in the game to begin with.

It didn’t take long.

After shooting 0 for 5 in the first half, and only getting his first points when a foul 16.2 seconds before halftime sent him to the free-throw line, Conley could have moped.

Instead, on the opening possession of the third quarter, he navigated around a screen and drilled a 3 from the left angle. Two possessions later, he drilled another shot beyond the arc that got both him and his teammates going.

“Right before we went out, coach told me, ‘Be aggressive, shoot it every time. We need you out there being that guy.’ So third quarter, first possession, I was going to come down and shoot — any chance I got I was going to look to to make a play. And I think everybody just fed off of the same energy,” Conley said. “What coach was trying to get us to understand [was] that we just needed needed to do more, needed to be more assertive on both ends. And I took it upon myself on both offense and defense to to bring more, and I know a lot of the guys did that early in the third quarter.”

Still, while Snyder acknowledged that “seeing the ball go in kind of gave us some life” in the aftermath of an opening half in which the Jazz made just 16 of 44 (36.4%) overall and 5 of 22 (22.7%) from deep, it was ultimately their efforts on the other end that made the most difference.

Before the break, New York scored 59 points; after, just 35. Before, Austin Rivers torched them for 25 points himself on 10-for-10 shooting; after, zero points on 0-for-4. Before, the Knicks hit 24 of 43 shots (55.8%); after, only 12 of 40 (30%).

“This game,” Snyder said, “is about our defense.”

And about proving that a bad night from both Mitchell and Bogdanovic need not be the death knell it once used to be.

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