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Udoka Azubuike thought the Utah Jazz were ‘joking’ when they told him he’d start vs. Denver. They weren’t.

With both Rudy Gobert and Hassan Whiteside ruled out, the Jazz had to use the just-returned-from-injury big man and veteran forward Rudy Gay as its centers against reigning MVP Nikola Jokic.

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, left, looks to pass the ball as Utah Jazz center Udoka Azubuike defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Denver • The Utah Jazz have had a few games this season where they’ve experimented with Rudy Gay for a few minutes as a small-ball center, and a few more when foul trouble or injury has necessitated extending his run there.

But, as Quin Snyder put it following Wednesday’s 115-109 victory over the Nuggets, they “haven’t had a game like this.”

Rudy Gobert was out, thanks to a non-COVID illness that saw him develop a 102-degree fever. Hassan Whiteside — after sitting out the previous two games in the NBA’s concussion protocol — went through Wednesday morning’s shootaround without incident, and was prepared to play, only to experience symptoms as the day progressed and also eventually be ruled out.

Neither of their two rotation centers being available for a game against reigning league MVP Nikola Jokic was not a scenario they had counted on. But, as the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention.” Or was this more of a “desperate times call for desperate measures” situation?

Either way, such were the circumstances that led to second-year center Udoka Azubuike — just cleared Wednesday to return to action after months out recuperating from a badly sprained ankle in a G League game — getting his first career start. And so it was that Gay got extended minutes at the 5, and not solely against fellow small-ballers, either. Even Eric Paschall, just returned to the team following the birth of his son, gave Utah some big-man minutes against the Nuggets.

Considering his start was a last-minute surprise even to him, Azubuike hanging in there against Jokic went about as well as anyone could have hoped.

“It was a last-minute thing. It was right before the game started. That’s when one of the coaches brought me along and was like, ‘Yeah, you’re starting,’” Azubuike recalled. “At first, I thought it was a joke. I thought he was joking with me. I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ So it was just last-minute, showing me coverages, how to guard The Joker.”

Some joke.

The Kansas big man’s final line of five points, one rebound, one block, one steal, and three personal fouls won’t necessarily wow anyone — especially relative to the monstrous 26-21-11 triple-double that Jokic contributed — but the 15:36 that ‘Dok logged nevertheless had an impact.

“For him to come in, his first NBA start, to play against arguably the best player in the world right now — I thought the minutes that he gave us were just really important minutes,” said coach Quin Snyder.

The big man admitted to being nervous — and who wouldn’t be in his circumstances? Fresh off an injury, he didn’t get up and down the court at all or play 5-on-5 until Tuesday, and then a day later, he finds out he’s making his first start and getting his first extended court time, and on top of that, “You get to play the Joker, the MVP — it was a crazy experience.”

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, front right, pulls down a rebound as Utah Jazz center Udoka Azubuike, front left, and forward Royce O'Neale defend during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Gay, who logged just shy of 29 minutes himself, praised his young teammate for keeping it simple: “His job today was make it hard for Jokic, and he did that. He went out and did his job.”

Ironically, despite being a 16-year vet on a title-contending team, Gay increasingly finds himself in non-simple situations these days.

Battling the likes of The Joker in the post was not something he could have envisioned early in his career.

“Before the game, I was talking to Zach Zarba, the referee, and I was like, ‘I came in this league as a shooting guard and now I’m a center,’” Gay said. “But this is the thing about teams — when you want to win, you have to have somebody step up and do things that they’re not comfortable with. You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable.”

Gay looked pretty comfortable Wednesday, racking up 18 points, seven rebounds and two blocks, while hitting 4 of 7 from 3-point range.

Defensively, he and Azubuike were assisted by a steady stream of double-teams on Jokic — from Mike Conley, from Jordan Clarkson, from Royce O’Neale — in a bid to keep him from totally annihilating them, because, as Snyder put it, “It’s impossible to guard him 1-on-1.”

As Gay put it: “We gave him a lot of respect, as he deserves.”

Given that Jokic amassed a 20-20 triple-double, it’s hard to call the strategy a complete success, but the coach saw signs of progress from a small-ball unit that previously hasn’t “been able to execute at the level that we want.” Yes, Jokic split some of the double-teams and spun away from others, but Snyder liked that, on this occasion, his defensive unit didn’t allow occasional mishaps with cutters (particularly early in the first quarter) to make them more reluctant to shift or pull over.

That Jazz did what they did Wednesday out of necessity. Which doesn’t make it any less gratifying that, at long last, the team had some success with small-ball.

And some success with a little-used former first-round draft pick.

And some success without two top big men and key reserve Joe Ingles, who’s in the NBA’s health and safety protocols owing to COVID-19.

Despite all of that, the Jazz racked up their 10th consecutive road victory and improved to 28-10 overall on the season.

“It feels like the biggest win right at this moment,” Snyder said. “It’s certainly the most unique game that we’ve won this year.”

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