SAN ANTONIO — Five NBA championship banners are hanging from the rafters of AT&T Center.
San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has led the franchise to playoff victories against some of the game’s all-time greats from Shaquille O’Neal to Kobe Bryant to LeBron James to Jason Kidd.
Even with the Utah Jazz entering San Antonio riding a four-game winning streak, he refused to give the opposing team or star rookie Donovan Mitchell — who would sit with flu-like symptoms — any praise in advance whatsoever.
“I learned that from Jerry Sloan,” Popovich said. “My team’s still committing turnovers, sometimes we don’t get back in transition, sometimes we don’t block out, and sometimes we’re in mud offensively. I try to take care of all that.”
After 48 minutes of competition, the Jazz didn’t need a cosign from Popovich or anyone else for that matter as they defeated the San Antonio Spurs, 120-111, to win their fifth consecutive contest.
The guys pushed through fatigue from a late plane arrival into San Antonio, Alec Burks started in the place of Mitchell, Rodney Hood returned from a six-game absence with a lower leg contusion, and the show kept rolling.
Popovich couldn’t help but change his tune after the game.
“They had a great performance,” Popovich said. “I think they won their last four or five out of six, something like that, and it showed. They beat us in that regard and I thought that they came to play physically and aggressively for 48; 24 minutes isnt going to do it.”
Even without Mitchell on the floor, Jazz floor general Ricky Rubio continued his stellar play with a career-high 34 points, nine assists and three rebounds on 11-of-14 shooting. He also shot 3 for 4 from 3 and the Jazz connected on 56.5 percent of their shots as a team, while shooting 52.2 percent as a unit from beyond the arc.
“I feel a lot of confidence and I worked on that shot,” Rubio said. “I know it’s been an up-and-down season, with starting pretty good and a lot of things happened, like learning a new system, you’re trying to fit in, with Rudy (Gobert) out it was hard and you’re trying to adjust that and now everybody is back and we’re feeling good.”
Rubio went 9 for 9 to start the game as the Jazz entered halftime with a 61-49 edge, but the Spurs were able to keep the game at a safe distance after scoring 11 points off eight Jazz turnovers in the third.
At the beginning of the fourth, the Spurs went on a 15-7 run fueled by Patty Mills who caught fire to pull San Antonio within one, 94-93, off a 3-pointer at 7:28, but the Jazz would answer with a trey from Rubio then back-to-back 3-pointers by rookie Royce O’Neale.
O’Neale would also end with a career-high 18 points, five rebounds and five assists while being on the floor in crunch time for a game-changing steal and fast break dunk with 1:29 remaining to give the Jazz a comfortable 114-109 lead.
“It was a great team effort … all the adversity and things, we just had to fight through it,” O’Neale said. “At the end, it’s going to be basketball, play as a team, play defense and listen to the game plan."
For a Jazz team playing their third game in five days on the second night of a back-to-back without Mitchell, Utah still was the better team.
Raul Neto added 12 points, Derrick Favors ended with 14 points and six boards, Rudy Gobert finished with 11 points, 10 rebounds and three swats while Joe Ingles added 10 points.
LaMarcus Aldridge was San Antonio’s top scorer with 31 points and five rebounds.
“I think we have an unselfish team and for us we don’t have a lot of guys that just naturally want to isolate and create shots for themselves — we try to get by and make somebody help and move it,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “It’s good basketball, and our team has embraced it.”
Utah (24-28) will hit the road to face the New Orleans Pelicans Monday.