Sacramento, Calif. • The Utah Jazz lineup that closed the third quarter Friday night at the Golden 1 Center and swung the game’s momentum was one borne out of necessity, owing to being short-handed on account of Joe Ingles’ first-quarter dismissal for a level-2 flagrant foul.
As for the one that closed the fourth quarter? That group didn’t just secure the comeback and a gritty 110-101 victory against a physical and energetic Kings squad, it also sent a resounding message to the rest of the league.
Namely, try that smallball stuff against us at your peril.
Pointedly, when Kings center Richaun Holmes fouled out with 3:12 to play, and Sacramento coach Luke Walton left backup big man Alex Len on the bench in favor of sliding the smooth-shooting Harrison Barnes up to the nominal 5, Jazz coach Quin Snyder did not rush to swap out Rudy Gobert for the smaller-and-switchable Eric Paschall.
No, he rolled with his starting lineup of Gobert, Bojan Bogdanovic, Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, and Mike Conley, and dared Sacramento’s group to prove they could exploit it. They could not.
“In those last four minutes when they started going small, being able to punish teams for doing that — we did a really good job of that,” Mitchell noted afterward.
It’s hard to argue.
The Jazz’s lead was just four at the time, though Gobert buried two free throws he got from Holmes’ loose-ball foul. Thereafter, however, Sacramento didn’t really get many great looks.
They didn’t convert many possessions into points, either.
Buddy Hield missed a 3. Then so did De’Aaron Fox. and Barnes. Fox finally got a layup to go in over the well-positioned Gobert, but then Hield threw the ball away, Davion Mitchell missed a 3, and so did Tyrese Haliburton.
And just like that, Utah led by 11 points with less than 30 seconds to play, and the once-raucous Golden 1 Center crowd — at the Kings’ first full-capacity-eligible game since March 11, 2000 — found itself mutely resigned to a disappointing result.
Gobert, a frequent target of scorn and vitriol following the Jazz’s playoff meltdown against the Clippers, struggled through much of Friday night’s game, but easily handled Sacramento’s 5-out scheme in the contest’s coda.
“Obviously, they went small at the end of the game, and that’s going to be a consistent thing we’re going to see,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “I thought we did a really good job — Rudy got switched out on Fox, he guarded Barnes, and that was the stretch where we got stops.”
Conley concurred, while explaining that the strategy required the other Jazz players on the court to step up their own individual stopping efforts in order to free the three-time DPOY from the burden of having to be in a position to have all of their backs.
“Everybody just took it upon themselves and was accountable to playing one-on-one defense at that point, and not relying on help as much,” said Conley. “And Rudy did a great job of shutting down a couple of opportunities for them.”
Mitchell also agreed that his big man stepped up late, but cited his efforts on the other end as proof.
“Rudy took it upon himself to be stronger,” he said. “Because he didn’t finish strong in the beginning, and then you look at the end, his finishes, the and-1 in the second half — it was night and day.”
Of course, the Jazz finally shaking off the dogged Kings and ably decimating their late-game gambit hardly means the rest of the league is now ready to abandon the idea. Both Mitchell and Conley said the team has scouted it and scrimmaged it practically to death.
But with good reason, as it turns out.
By being able to keep their starting unit on the court, not having to run some gimmick lineup to counter the opposition’s, and running it all with great efficiency, the Jazz just made themselves that much more dangerous.
“The last four minutes of the game, defensively, we were really good. And we kept attacking, we got some stuff in transition off our defense, and we had a lot of courage to take the right shots, take open shots, even though they were early in the clock,” said Snyder. “… The story of the game is the way we defended late. Because that was able to get us space on the court, and [we were] able to make plays.”