With 3:07 remaining in Sunday’s game at the Footprint Center in Phoenix, the Suns called timeout, and Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder made a few substitutions for what would be his lineup to close out the proceedings and hopefully hold on to a six-point lead.
Mike Conley in for Jordan Clarkson. Rudy Gobert in for Hassan Whiteside. And remaining in: Donovan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic … and Danuel House?
The latter decision meant that starter and de facto top perimeter defender Royce O’Neale would finish the game on the bench, while House would be tasked with shadowing All-Star guard Devin Booker. Naturally, a homegrown starter being effectively supplanted by a midseason addition on a minimum contract down the stretch of what would turn out to be a 118-114 victory over the top team in the NBA would be a huge talking point in the aftermath.
But perhaps not just for the reasons you might expect.
“Royce was the first one off the bench talking to [House],” Snyder noted postgame.
“You look at Royce after, he’s as excited as anybody,” added Donovan Mitchell, who is O’Neale’s best friend on the team. “I think that’s what makes this team so special, that’s what makes this group special. It can definitely be a ‘I’m just gonna sit and pout [situation].’ Royce didn’t do that.”
Two consistent talking points emerged from the five Jazz personnel who addressed the media following the victory that moved them to 38-22 on the season: Sacrifices are going to have to be made, and egos are going to have to be checked.
Gobert brought up both within the space of a few words.
“When you have a lot of talent on a team, it’s a blessing but it can also be a curse. We’ve got to all embrace it. If we want to be a championship team, we know that it’s hard, and we cannot have egos. We have to all be willing to sacrifice for the team,” he said. “Yes, a lot of guys could get more shots on another team, guys could get more playing time, but are they gonna get an opportunity to win a championship? That’s the real question. I think everybody has been embracing that mindset.”
Indeed, Snyder mentioned that House replacing O’Neale down the stretch was not the only change that could have been made. Though Gobert racked up 16 points, 14 rebounds, and three blocks, he was also a minus-15 plus/minus in the game, while Whiteside (eight points, eight rebounds, one block) was a plus-19.
“The way Hassan was playing, we could have finished the game with Hassan,” said Snyder.
Conley had 13 points, but also shot just 5 of 13, committed a team-high four turnovers, and was a minus-15; Clarkson had 22 points on 10-for-17 shooting, while adding five rebounds, three assists, and two steals in going a team-best plus-20.
“Mike [was] talking about maybe letting Jordan go,” Snyder added.
In the end, it was just House over O’Neale. But that may not be the case at another point.
“Sometimes you just stick with what’s working,” said Mitchell. “That happens. That was tonight. When we play Houston [on Wednesday] or Milwaukee down the line, or whatever, it may be a different story.”
On this occasion, House said he was just trying to give Booker some different looks and to make him work. He noted what a talented and preternatural scorer the Phoenix guard is, and how despite all the Jazz’s efforts against him, he still racked up 30 points on 50% shooting — to go along with seven assists and seven rebounds. But …
“Me and Royce tonight, we did a real good job of making it hard,” said House, making it a point to invoke the efforts of his teammate.
When asked about the potential awkwardness of getting the call over O’Neale on Sunday, the veteran wing said he simply was focused at the time on doing his job once he got the call.
Then he echoed the words of the other Jazz.
“We see a bigger picture. There’s a bigger goal at hand,” said House. “And in order for us to achieve that goal, we’ve got to sacrifice.”
That bigger goal is pretty straightforward, and it requires equally straightforward willingness for every individual to prioritize the good of the group at the potential expense of themselves.
“We’ve got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to accomplish something that will [last] forever. … In the end, all that matters is winning,” said Gobert. “As long as we all sacrifice, we’ve got an opportunity to do something special.”
And so, given the depth that he has at his disposal, Snyder said he will have opportunities to play different players for different reasons — matchup-specific or otherwise. He believes this team’s level of buy-in for such a situation is unusually high.
With House on Sunday, the coach simply liked the way the forward was navigating Phoenix’s screens to stay with the prolific guard. Beyond the schematic specifics, though, he was noticing “the emotion and the energy — that stuff is infectious, and that gets other guys going. It gives you a lift.”
“He’s just competing — he’s going out there and he ain’t scared of nobody. He’s just putting his life out there. And it’s contagious to all of us,” he said. “Having that mindset is really what our team needs. It’s been great to have him, Royce, Trent [Forrest] being so aggressive defensively. It’s inspiring and contagious for all the other guys.”
Speaking of infectious, it was pointed out to Mitchell that, as the fourth quarter played out, he and his teammates didn’t appear tight or stressed, but were smiling, looking like they were enjoying the competition and the moment.
He confirmed as much.
“I’m excited because you walk off the floor, you feel gassed, you feel like everything was left out there by everybody,” Mitchell said. “Everybody on our bench was a plus in the plus/minus, contributed something, did something positive, found ways to win. It feels different.”
And O’Neale, he added, shared in that.
“That’s what makes this group special — if you want to win, ultimately you’ve got to put the egos aside and find ways to compete and find ways to do what’s working,” Mitchell said. “We all trust the staff, we trust in each other, and [Royce] was probably one of the most supportive guys after the win. That tells you everything you need to know about Royce O’Neale and who he is.”