Utah Jazz’s forwards cosplay as centers against Wolves, hold their own in key stretch

After Rudy Gobert picked up his fourth foul early in the third quarter, it was on Bojan Bogdanovic and Royce O’Neale to fend off Karl-Anthony Towns — and they did.

Utah Jazz forward Bojan Bogdanovic (44) shoots the ball over Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday Dec. 8, 2021, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)

Minneapolis • Rudy Gobert picked up his third foul with just 37.2 seconds left in the second quarter. Then he picked up his fourth foul only 1:22 after halftime — a whistle which made him so angry that, after returning to the bench, he slammed his water bottle to the ground in disgust, sending the contents out as far as the center court circle, causing a stoppage in play.

He knew the implication: The Utah Jazz were already short-handed in the middle, with Hassan Whiteside sitting out a second straight game; now, suddenly, they were going to have to go small for an extended period.

Thing is, as much as the focus on Utah’s small-ball lineups has been about how Rudy Gay performs as the nominal big man, on Wednesday night at the Target Center, it was 6-foot-8 Bojan Bogdanovic and 6-4 Royce O’Neale who did much of the work fending off former All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns.

“They battled. That’s really all you can say,” Donovan Mitchell said afterward.

That about sums it up.

While O’Neale is known for his Swiss-Army-knife defensive versatility, he’s not typically regarded as a guy who can bang for very long against legit post players. And Bogey … well, there’s a reason he’s known for his finesse-oriented offensive game, and not for his physicality on the other end.

But there they were, fronting KAT to try and deny him entry passes, putting elbows into his back and knees up against his backside in an effort to physically push him off his spot.

“I was just trying to make him work having to catch the ball. Just doing my work early,” said Bogdanovic. “… Push him further out and then fight for position.”

And it made a significant difference in Utah’s 136-104 victory.

The Jazz’s lead was just 63-59 when Gobert exited. How long could they afford to sit him? How much would the momentum have swung the other way in his absence?

About that.

Utah held its own during that stretch, even slightly expanding its advantage to 83-76 by the time Gobert checked back in with 3:08 remaining in the period. Bogdanovic, O’Neale, and Gay all took turns battling Towns down low.

“Bojan did a terrific job just working and making everything hard. And Rudy Gay, we forget he’s 6-10, so he has a presence, particularly on the glass,” said coach Quin Snyder. “But there was also Joe [Ingles] and [Jordan Clarkson] and the guys getting in there, Don and Mike [Conley] just mixing it up on the glass and coming up with loose ball-type rebounds. And then we took advantage of some of our shooting in transition during that time, too. We got good looks and we shot it with confidence.”

Indeed, a period that could have turned into an epic disaster instead became one that Utah won 35-22, and one that saw them earn a 14-point lead going into the final quarter.

Yes, some of that was earned upon Gobert’s return, as he and Conley dominated the Wolves’ reserves down the stretch. But it was also partly due to the forwards playing like bigs for a stretch.

O’Neale said his focus was to try and take away Towns’ primary moves, to make him uncomfortable by sending hard double-teams and forcing kick-outs. Bogey wanted to lean on him, to push him farther out onto the court and not let him get started from his preferred spots.

It’s not like Towns was completely shut down — he did, after all, score 22 points on 7-for-11 shooting, and add seven rebounds and five assists, which Bogdanovic was quick to note, right after faux-complaining about all the attention paid to his defense this time: “I’m trying to give effort every single night — maybe tonight looked different.”

The point was, not much of what KAT did looked easy. And the production he did have didn’t wind up making much of an impact on the outcome.

“You just have to work,” Snyder said. “You have to work, whether it’s in pick-and-roll, you have to be up, you have to be conscious of them in transition. As much as anything, mentally, you have to be really committed to what you’re doing, and then you have to have confidence in the guys behind you. … The thing Bojan was able to do was he really dug in defensively.”