Utah Jazz are now trying to balance wins against rest in season’s stretch run

And they see an opportunity to accomplish a couple of those at the same time Tuesday, as three regulars sit out the 106-96 victory over Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Luguentz Dort (5) shoots as Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, April 13, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

For all those Utah Jazz fans who bought tickets to Tuesday night’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder hoping for one of those classic Georges Niang vs. Luguentz Dort scoring battles, they did not go home disappointed.

Same for everyone hoping for early minutes from Ersan Ilyasova, Matt Thomas, and Jarrell Brantley.

One night after acknowledging that his team was tired but suggesting that it didn’t really matter because every team was in the same situation, coach Quin Snyder made Royce O’Neale a healthy scratch against the Thunder, to give him a night of rest during what was the team’s fifth game in seven days.

Other rotation regulars also missing the OKC game were Jordan Clarkson (right ankle sprain) and Joe Ingles (left knee soreness).

Not a bad night to try it, all things considered, as Utah prevailed 106-96 to improve to 41-14 on the season.

[Read The Triple Team: Rudy Gobert shuts down OKC; Jarrell Brantley gets his chance]

At any rate, with just 17 more contests remaining in this truncated and condensed regular season, Snyder now finds himself trying to balance the competing interests of winning games, coaxing a bit more improvement out of his team, and not running his players into the ground.

“In order to get better, you have to be as fresh as you can be,” he acknowledged before the Thunder matchup. “As a coach and as a team, you’re evaluating certain things, and you get a better picture of where you are when you’re able to play on a certain level.”

In other words, he noticed the team slowing down.

He added that he’d recently re-watched Utah’s season opener against Portland, and what stood out was that “we were shot out of a cannon — there’s just an extra gear.”

After 55 games — and five consecutive weeks of four games and at least one back-to-back matchup — that gear is getting progressively harder to shift into.

That gear looked downright nonexistent in the first quarter Tuesday, when they surrendered 17 points to the immortal Dort on 7-for-10 shooting, and found themselves down by as much as 31-14.

After that, though …

Well, if Snyder was gambling that he could afford to rest O’Neale in a game that Clarkson and Ingles were unavailable because the Thunder are a pretty bad team to begin with and missing several of their key players besides, it looks like he wagered correctly.

Utah held the Thunder to 22 points in the second quarter and 16 in the third.

Niang, making just his second career start, nailed almost half his 3-point tries and registered a double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds.

Bojan Bogdanovic was aggressive in driving the lane and in hunting fouls, and he was rewarded, going 10 of 10 from the line en route to a team-high 23 points, to go along with seven rebounds.

Rudy Gobert approached a triple-double with 13 points, 14 rebounds, and seven blocks. Mike Conley had 15 points and 14 assists. Donovan Mitchell registered a nondescript-for-him 22 points.

Even Brantley — the tantalizing but as-yet-undeveloped second-year forward — had a solid night, amassing 10 points and four boards in 22 minutes.

In a game where the Jazz trailed by as many as 17, they wound up leading by as many as 25.

Snyder saw an opportunity to both get some primary guys some rest and still try to pick up a win that could prove valuable in the battle for the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. And it paid off — though his plan to get the starters out of there early fell apart when the Thunder finished on a 23-8 run to make the game uncomfortably close.

“All those things matter, and we’ve been conscious of it the whole year,” Snyder said. “Obviously, you’re balancing that with continuity, [with] what you’re trying to accomplish in the regular season.”

His players know it’s a difficult balancing act.

Even they have competing viewpoints on which of those goals is most important going forward.

Gobert — who humorously noted postgame that “there’s some days I feel really tired, but I try to tell myself that I’m not” — argued that the clear imperative is making sure everyone is in the best possible physical condition going forward.

“I think the No. 1 thing for us is taking care of ourselves,” he said. “… We obviously want to keep the first seed, but keeping our health is even more important.”

Bogdanovic, meanwhile, sees the value of earning home-court advantage in the playoffs, but believes Utah can pull that off even with throwing the occasional night off to a key player.

“I think, personally, that it’s going to be huge if we finish first or second,” he said. “Even resting the guys, we are we are doing a great job, [though on Monday] night, we had a tough one. No matter what the coaching staff decides, who they’re going to rest or if they’re going to rest the guys, I think that we have enough quality to beat anybody in this league.”