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Utah Jazz’s Royce O’Neale relishes postseason role as preferred defensive matchup on James Harden

SALT LAKE CITY — With each second shedding from the pregame shot clock inside Vivint Arena, more than an hour ahead of Monday’s Game 4 tipoff, Royce O’Neale’s biggest fan studied his pregame routine from just a few feet away.

Even while drenched in sweat, with headphones plugged in his ears to drown out any distractions, his mother Deborah Kingwood knew one thing for certain.

“Royce doesn’t wanna lose tonight,” she declared. “He hates to lose.”

She certainly spoke it into existence as the Utah Jazz swingman once again drew the difficult task of guarding reigning MVP James Harden in Utah’s 107-91 victory to avoid a sweep.

Harden finished with 30 points and four assists but also made eight turnovers in the process while going 8-for-19 from the field. In Game 3, he started 0-for-15 which was the most missed shots in a row to start a game in playoff history, with O’Neale defending him for the bulk of those possessions.

O’Neale’s individual numbers for the first-round series aren’t breathtaking, at 8.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game, but the second-year undrafted forward’s impact is certainly felt.

“The playoffs, it shows who you are. In our locker room, we’ve always known who Royce is and who Georges (Niang) is,” Jazz guard Kyle Korver said. “I think other people are getting to see that maybe a little.

“Royce was great last year in the playoffs, too, but I think he’s taken his game to another level,” he added. “He’s arguably been our most consistent player in this whole series of anybody. He’s played really, really well.”

Part of O’Neale’s postseason evolution stems from simply being comfortable in his current role. Despite trailing 3-1, this current Houston series isn’t his first go-round at meaningful NBA basketball. O’Neale went from being the last player to make the roster in 2017-18 to averaging 10.4 points and 4.0 rebounds in a five-game series against the Rockets during the 2018 second-round series for Utah.

“Last year was the first year of not knowing what to expect,” O’Neale recalled. “It’s a whole new season and I think just having last year under my belt, it’s me and Donovan (Mitchell).

“I think that we know what to expect now. We know that it’s a new season, we know that we’ve got to bring more effort than everybody else.”

Jazz coach Quin Snyder has quickly recognized that Utah’s best shot at slowing down Harden is by putting O’Neale on him. His 6-foot-6, 226-pound frame and length aren’t easy to get around on a regular basis. Throughout the first four games, O’Neale has defended Harden a team-high 113 possessions where the Rockets star has gone 13-for-45 to shoot 28.9% from the field and 28.0% from 3, which is the best you could ask for after he averaged 36.1 points per game in the regular season.

“That’s our preferred matchup on James. They know that, it’s not a secret and that’s a lot to ask of a guy, a second-year player that continues to improve,” Snyder said of O’Neale. “Being available and ready to do that in a situation and having a different role, being able to process that and not let it distract you from doing your job and playing to your strengths. He’s been able to do that.”

O’Neale has been solid all season for the Jazz, playing in all 82 games as his minutes have been up and down. Not once has he complained or been a locker room distraction, but more so waited patiently for his opportunity — which is now on the playoff stage — because Kingwood didn’t raise him that way.

Reaching this level has been the goal since Kingwood introduced him to organized club ball at 8 years old in his hometown of Killeen, Texas. Now he's preparing for Game 5 Wednesday against the Houston Rockets at the Toyota Center nearly 200 miles away with the respect of his teammates.

“With Royce the greatest thing is you just know what you’re going to get,” said Jazz forward Joe Ingles. “He comes in, he plays his (butt) off, he’s become a really reliable 3-point shooter, he’s making plays off the dribble but defensively as well, you know what you’re going to get from him and that’s the great thing to have in a player.”