With 16.7 seconds left and down 101-99, the best plan for the San Antonio Spurs seemed like testing Utah’s rookie on defense.
No, not that rookie. The other one. Royce O’Neale.
Manu Ginobili, who has been playing in the NBA since O’Neale was 10 years old, drove in from the wing and tried a shot fake. No good — O’Neale stayed on his feet. Kyle Anderson got the ball and O’Neale switched back onto him. O’Neale ate him up, nearly forcing a turnover before Ginobili recovered and threw up a last-second heave.
Crisis averted. Clock done. Jazz won.
Quin Snyder was one of the first to embrace O’Neale, pounding him on the chest and shouting in his face. He had faith that the rookie would do what he had been coached to do over and over again.
“[Assistant coach] Lamar Skeeter probably shot-faked him 500 times this year trying to get him not to leave his feet,” Snyder said. “Particularly when you want a stop, you’re wound up, you’re tense, you’re competing, that’s when you go for a fake. He’s been really good.”
Postgame in the locker room, O’Neale donned a T-shirt bearing Muhammad Ali pumping his fist in victory over vanquished Sonny Liston. O’Neale had just made his second career start, filling in for Ricky Rubio, after beginning the season as the last man to make the Jazz roster out of training camp after playing the last two overseas.
So far, there’s been no moment too big for O’Neale. And that’s what the Jazz are coming to expect from the 25-year-old wing. He was a steady hand in Utah’s 13-point comeback in the fourth quarter.
“It’s the NBA — you make runs,” he said. “They made their run, so we knew we had to lock in, play defense, get stops and rebounds, then try to get easy baskets on the offensive side.”
O’Neale has a way of making things sound matter-of-fact, but nothing about his rise has been ordinary this season. He’s seen his minutes, points and rebounding increase in each month of the year. In February, he’s shot better than 46 percent from 3-point range.
It hasn’t been the difference in the Jazz winning the last 10 games. But it’s certainly helped.
His experiences in Europe have helped make him more mature, his teammates said. From what they’ve seen, while he doesn’t possess the otherworldly talent of his close friend Donovan Mitchell, he’s not the average rookie, either.
Even Mitchell has to admit that much.
“I’m definitely impressed with the way he played defense at the end, but it doesn’t surprise me — I see it all the time,” Mitchell said. “I’m glad he got his moment to shine and thrive. He’s gonna keep doing that for us.”