SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The Utah Jazz beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 106-96 without the services of Royce O’Neale, Joe Ingles, and Jordan Clarkson.
Playing against a severely shorthanded Thunder roster, the Jazz utilized the opportunity to find extra rest while nursing a few injured bodies with two days off before hosting the Indiana Pacers on Friday.
Bojan Bogdanovic carried the Jazz offensive scoring 23 points, bringing his two-day total of 56 points, his second-best stretch of the season while Rudy Gobert blocked seven shots to help keep Oklahoma City under the century mark.
Lu Dort scored a career-high 42 points for the Thunder, but he got little help offensively from his teammates resulting in the team’s seventh consecutive loss.
The Benefit Of Being The Fifth Man
A lot of attention is paid to the sixth man on an NBA roster, the first player off the bench who is often a better scorer than some of the team’s five regular starters, but better suited getting extra shots off the bench.
On the flip side, the fifth man in a starting lineup can regularly be overlooked while playing alongside the team’s best players. However, they also get the advantage of playing off the better players on the team, generally opening up better opportunities on the floor.
With O’Neale missing his first game of the season due to rest, Georges Niang got his first start of the year and showed the benefits of playing alongside the team’s opening lineup.
Niang scored 18 points, his second-highest total of the season while playing nearly 34 minutes while hoisting up a career-high 13 three-point attempts. Six of Niang’s attempts came in the first quarter, four of which he made playing alongside the team’s starters.
“This was my first start of this year but you’ve got to have the confidence to believe that you can start an NBA,” Niang said, “and I do.”
But Niang wasn’t the only Jazz player to benefit from getting extended minutes alongside the team’s more experienced players.
Jarrell Brantley played 22 minutes off the bench, scoring a team-high 10 second-unit points while grabbing four rebounds.
Brantley traditionally plays towards the end of games in blowout situations but found himself alongside the Jazz starters against Oklahoma City.
“When you get to play with great players, it’ll help you,” Brantley said.
The two-way forward has been used sparingly for the Jazz this season but could have significant value for the team going forward. At this point, he struggles against most NBA opponents working to stay in front of his man on defense.
However, he’s got an NBA physique and plus athleticism to go along with a versatile offensive skill set. Against the Thunder Brantley showed off his ability to drive to the rim, pass off the dribble, and operate as a spot-up shooter, knocking down 2-3 from three.
He’ll have to continue to improve defensively, but versatility could allow him to operate like a swiss army knife in the Jazz offense wherever they need him in the lineup.
“It’s special that my teammates and the coaches trusted me with that role and with that task,” Brantley said smiling. “It’s amazing, these moments are amazing. Today was amazing, so I don’t know what tomorrow holds but today was amazing.”
With only 17 games remaining in the regular season, finding time down the stretch as the Jazz are locked in a tight race for the top seed with the Phoenix Suns might be difficult. However, finding another frontcourt piece ahead of the playoffs that could be used in spot minutes would be valuable for the Jazz.
Bogdanovic Rounding Into Form
While Brantley may be trying to earn a few frontcourt minutes, Bojan Bogdanovic is probably putting Jazz fans at ease with his.
After a rough year for the soon-to-be 32-year-old, Bogdanovic has begun to find his scoring touch as the Jazz reach the most crucial stretch of the season. Over the last five games, the Croatian forward is averaging 19 points and 4.8 rebounds in 33 minutes a night.
That’s up from Bogdanovic’s season averages of 15.2 points and 4.0 rebounds for the season. Most importantly, the forward seems to be finding different ways to score the ball depending on his opponent.
In the Jazz loss to the Washington Wizards, Bogdanovic scored 33 points on 10-18 shooting including 6-10 from the three-point line.
Against a smaller Thunder lineup, Bogdanovic repeatedly drove the rim, scoring 23 points on 6-14 shooting while earning 10 trips to the free-throw line.
As a below-average defensive player, the Jazz need Bogdanovic to produce at a high level offensively to justify his minutes in the rotation. However, even when he hasn’t played well, the Jazz lack the ideal depth in the frontcourt to replace him on bad nights.
Though five games is far from a surefire signifier that Bogdanovic is returning to the player he was last season for the Jazz, it’s a great sign that progress from wrist surgery during last season is progressing in the right direction, and it’s happening at the ideal time.
Thunder Guard Lu Dort: Jazz Killer
There’s a common myth among fans of any NBA team that only their franchise gets regularly killed by role players on other rosters. The truth is, with 450 of the best players in the world playing between 72-82 games a year, every team will catch career nights from opposing players on a somewhat regular basis.
However, Jazz fans have every reason to be scared of Lu Dort based on his performances against their team through the first two years of his career.
Dort has played in just 42 games this season for the Thunder and has scored more than 25 points only twice on the year. Unfortunately for Jazz fans, both times have come against their team.
On December 28, Dort went off for 26 points against the Jazz on a ridiculous 9-11 shooting including 5-7 from downtown.
Then, as if that game never ended, Dort did it again against the Jazz in Utah scoring a career-high 42 points on 16-31 from the floor and 7-11 from downtown.
Now, Dort only scored 14 points total against the Jazz in two games as a rookie, but for this season, he belongs alongside Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook as the three players who the Jazz haven’t been able to find an answer for in either matchup.
Dort opened the game with 18 points in the first quarter while making a perfect 4-4 from the three-point line. Then, after getting held to just six points in the second and third quarter, Dort scored 18 points in the final period to rim the Jazz lead to single digits late in the game.
On top of his incredible scoring, Dort is one of the league’s best defenders on the perimeter and has given Donovan Mitchell trouble in both meetings this year.
For the season, Mitchell has scored 20 points on 7-22 shooting against Dort while connecting on just 3-10 from the three-point line. Dort earned his stripes defending James Harden in the playoffs last year for the Thunder after going undrafted as a rookie. While Oklahoma City won’t make the playoffs this year, he could be a series-changing defender for years to come.