Impromptu Frontcourt Carries Jazz Past Nuggets

Jan 5, 2022, 11:37 PM
Rudy Gay - Utah Jazz - Denver Nuggets...
Rudy Gay #8 of the Utah Jazz reacts after making a shot against the Denver Nuggets during the second quarter at Ball Arena on January 5, 2022 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by C. Morgan Engel/Getty Images)
(Photo by C. Morgan Engel/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY – The Utah Jazz earned one of their most improbable victories of the season, knocking off the Denver Nuggets 115-109 without Rudy Gobert, Hassan Whiteside, and Joe Ingles.

The Jazz got terrific minutes from their makeshift frontcourt of Udoka Azubuike, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Rudy Gay who had their hands full with reigning MVP Nikola Jokic.

Bogdanovic scored a season-high 35 points and grabbed a career-high 13 rebounds as the Jazz earned their 10th straight win on the road.

Azubuike Plays Admirably In Surprise Start

There aren’t many worse ways to draw up a game plan against one of the best offensive players in the world than to take away your Defensive Player of the Year center, then find out shortly before tip-off that his primary backup was also going to be a late scratch.

That was the case for the Jazz who knew they’d be without Gobert early Wednesday when the center missed the team’s shootaround due to a 102-degree fever.

Whiteside was penciled in as the team’s starter, but as the day drew on, the center who had missed the Jazz previous two games once again began feeling symptoms from his recent concussion and was also required to miss the game.

That meant second-year big man Udoka Azubuike, who hadn’t started a real game since March 7, 2020, would open the game at center.

To make matters worse, Azubuike hadn’t played since November 26 when he injured his ankle while playing for the Salt Lake City Stars.

However, the center returned with a modest but respectable five point, one rebound performance in 15 minutes.

“I thought the minutes that he gave us were just really important minutes,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said, “particularly at the beginning of the game.”

Azubuike didn’t know he’d get the start until just a few minutes before the game and admitted he was surprised at the twist in fate.

“When they first told me, I’m not going to lie, I was a little bit nervous,” Azubuike said. “Coming back from injury and you get to play the Joker — the MVP. It was a crazy experience.”

The second-year center has been put in as tough of a position to succeed as any player in the NBA over the last two years, getting over-drafted by the Jazz in 2020, stashed behind veterans in Gobert, Whiteside, Gay, and Derrick Favors, while having to battle back from two scary ankle injuries in the last 11 months.

Still, Azubuike has put himself in a position to be useful for the Jazz at the moment they needed him most, and he came through.

Gay, Bogdanovic Shine In Small Lineups

When the Jazz signed Gay in the offseason, it was apparent they would use the 16-year veteran in different small lineups, hoping to change their fortunes in the playoffs against smaller opposing units.

So far this season, the results were mixed.

As recently as the team’s win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday, Gay and the Jazz second unit struggled to perform with Whiteside missing the game with his concussion protocol.

“So let me get this right, if Rudy [Gobert’s] not in, we actually have to defend and contain the ball?” Snyder asked facetiously after Monday’s win.

However, the results against Denver were significantly better.

Gay hit his first two threes of the game, screening for Mike Conley and popping out to the top of the key for open looks against the slow-footed Jokic.

On the defensive end, while Jokic still finished with a remarkable 26 points, 21 rebounds, and 11 assists, it still felt like the Jazz prevented what could have been an even more dominant performance.

“We gave him a lot of respect, as he deserves,” Gay said of Jokic. “He still had a pretty good game, but the biggest part was trying to limit the easy stuff and make other people hurt us and our game plan worked.”

Gay finished with 18 points and seven rebounds in 29 important minutes.

But while Gay and Azubuike played well, Bogdanovic likely had the best game of his career in a Jazz uniform.

The forward set a new career-high in rebounds with 13 and a season-high in points with 36 on just 12-20 shooting, including a poor 1-6 night from three.

Last season the Nuggets acquired Aaron Gordon to be the team’s defensive stopper against the league’s more offensively gifted scorers, but he had no answer for Bogdanovic throughout the game.

“I just feel great,” Bogdanovic said, “and I’m trying to be aggressive and do whatever it takes to win the games.”

The Jazz needed Bogdanovic’s huge outing as Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley combined for just 27 points on 12-33 shooting in 65 combined minutes.

With a shorthanded frontcourt, Bogdanovic was asked to play 40 long minutes, five more than his previous season-high, and he carried the Jazz to victory.

Snyder Discusses Danuel House

Though the team hasn’t officially announced the addition of forward Danuel House, Snyder discussed the decision to sign him before the game.

After Ingles entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols and the team traded Miye Oni, they were suddenly very thin on the wing, especially when it came to shooters.

“We’re excited,” Snyder said. “Seems like we played against him a lot when he was with the Rockets. He’s someone that gives us another three-point threat.”

In 154 games with the Rockets, House averaged 9.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 1.4 assists while shooting 42 percent from the floor and 37 percent from the three-point line.

Earlier this season House and the Rockets agreed to part ways as Houston opted to play their younger roster allowing the veteran to find a better opportunity elsewhere.

The forward stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 220 lbs giving him prototypical size for a modern NBA perimeter player.

“He’s got good size on the wing — athleticism,” Snyder said. “I’ve always been impressed with him when we’ve played him, his competitiveness.”

House hadn’t officially joined the team in Denver, but Snyder said they were hopeful they could use their newest addition when they travel to face the Toronto Raptors on Friday night.

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