SALT LAKE CITY — Royce O’Neale didn’t get much notice about starting Friday night in place of Ricky Rubio, who was a late scratch because of left hamstring soreness.
Rubio went through his usual pregame routine, but his hammy wasn’t feeling right so it was determined moments before the team’s pregame meeting that he wouldn’t play. O’Neale then got the word just minutes before tipoff that he’d start for the fourth time in his young NBA career.
That late notice didn’t bother him in the slightest.
“I always have the same mindset whether I’m starting or coming off the bench,” the rookie guard from Baylor said. “Just bring a lot of energy, help the guys get open, get easy baskets. It just helps me to get easy baskets as well.”
Though Dante Exum stole the show with his splendid 21-point performance off the bench, O’Neale played well in place of Rubio. He scored 13 points, grabbed six rebounds, dished out four assists and had three steals while helping the Jazz earn a 107-97 win over Memphis.
“Royce has been defending,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “That’s one of the things that has earned him playing time.”
O’Neale and Exum teamed up in the backcourt to boost the Jazz when things weren’t looking so hot in the third quarter. Utah had squandered its early 15-point lead and trailed Memphis — sparked by a tank-shortened 28-point performance by Marc Gasol — when O’Neale and Exum kicked it into another gear.
Trailing by three, Exum hit one of his three 3-pointers. O’Neale then made a steal and was fouled while making a layup and dropped the free throw. Exum finished the 8-0 run with a dunk, assisted by O’Neale.
“We just bring a lot of energy,” O’Neale said. “We’ve just got to keep that up, and it had a momentum swing our way.”
That gave the Jazz a 74-69 lead, and they never trailed again even though Memphis made them work for an important win. Utah moved into a tie for seventh place at 43-33 and is only one game out of the No. 4 spot.
“We needed those kinds of plays today, and he re-energized the whole team,” Jazz center Rudy Gobert said of O’Neale. “Like Dante, he had a great game tonight.”
O’Neale’s biggest highlight of the night was an over-the-shoulder pass to a trailing Ingles, who delighted the crowd and teammates with a soaring slam that will certainly vault him into contender status for the 2019 dunk contest. That put Utah up 102-91 with 2:38 remaining.
“I wasn’t expecting him to dunk, maybe a layup,” O’Neale said. “I knew he was running beside me. Once I heard the crowd and I heard him jump for a dunk, I was like, ‘OK, Joe.’”
This was the third game this season in which O'Neale has had three steals. The 6-foot-6 guard, a pleasantly surprising addition to the Jazz roster and rotation, finished this game with a plus-minus of plus-16 and only had one turnover. Snyder also liked his fourth-quarter defense, which helped limit Memphis to 21 points.