If there was ever any questioning about the growth of the Jazz, all one had to do was watch Friday night’s game to see the difference with the team.

In the 10th game of the year, Utah fell to Orlando in a tough showing on all ends — particularly from the bench. But that changed on Friday in the rematch when the bench led the way in a 114-99 victory over Orlando. 

“We’re going to need everybody. … That’s what I’ve been trying to say,” head coach Quin Snyder said. “We don’t know when we’re going to need a certain guy. We got a lot of guys that have worked and competed and played well. … Played well in the sense that they’re helping us win games.”

Here are five things to know following the win:

1.) Bench Has Made Strides
As mentioned above, the Jazz fell in the first meeting between these two teams — and only received 26 points from its bench. That’s a tough number considering Utah had the reigning sixth man of the year (Jordan Clarkson), a former defensive player of the candidate (Hassan Whiteside), and an all-rookie first-team member (Eric Paschall) making up the core of its bench./p>

In the rematch, the bench was more dominant on both ends of the court. 

Clarkson had 18 points (+10 rating), Whiteside had a monster double-double of 15 points, 18 rebounds, and three blocks, while Paschall was dominant on the defensive end. Add in the play of Trent Forrest — who has emerged as a legitimate contributor — and Utah’s bench scored 46 of the team’s 114 points. 

And that came without key offseason addition Rudy Gay, who is dealing with right knee soreness and is expected back sometime soon.

If the Jazz can get this sort of production out of its bench, Utah should be able to navigate a tough schedule down the closing stretch of the regular season. 

2.) Udoka Azubuike Gets A New Bag
Before the start of the season, Clarkson came up with a way to help keep the second-year big man motivated throughout the year. Behind Rudy Gobert and Whiteside on the depth chart, minutes were scarce for Udoka Azubuike early on.

But as with any NBA season, it’s a rarity for anybody to stay healthy for an entire season, especially big men who deal with daily physical tolls. So with Gobert and Whiteside both missing action recently due to physical ailments and health and safety protocols, Azubuike was allowed to show what he could do — and he’s run with it.

It’s been a week of career-highs since Azubuike entered the starting lineup on Feb. 2 against Denver. He had his first double-double last Friday against Brooklyn, a career-high 14 rebounds against New York on Monday, and a career-high 12 points against the Magic on Friday.

During his last five games, he’s averaging 9.6 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks in 22.6 minutes. 

While his play has earned him more minutes on the court — and allowed Utah to be more cautious in bringing back Gobert from a left calf strain — it’s also earned Azubuike some new swag. 

“The first time he went out there and scored 10, he tapped me and said, ‘JC, I scored 10, you still remember that bag?’ And I’m like, ‘You know what? I got you.’ Then he did it again. I think he did it again,” Clarkson said. “I shouldn’t have passed him the ball. … Now I might have to get him a Goyard or something luxurious. … I’ll get him something special.”

3.) Donovan Mitchell Gets It Done Defensively
There’s been no doubt that the time off spent recovering from a concussion has done Donovan Mitchell well when it comes to rest. Since returning over the past four games, Mitchell has averaged 24.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 5.3 assists on 46.4% shooting from the floor and 39.5% from beyond the arc.

While his offense has been impressive throughout Utah’s five-game winning streak, his defense has been drawing rave reviews. His evolution in defending the pick-and-roll has helped the Jazz climb back into the top-10 defensive rating, impressive with Gobert still nursing an injury. 

In one specific critical moment during Utah’s fourth quarter surge, Mitchell had the play of the game when he ran Wendell Carter Jr. off the three-point line, contained him at the point of attack, switched with Azubuike before recovering for the steal on the attempted pass. 

“I think Donovan in the games he was out, he was able to see things when you’re watching the flow of the game in real time,” Snyder said of Mitchell. “He’s told me that he wants to try to impact every play, whatever that is. Something as simple as being shifted, deflecting, high hands, getting blockouts. … For him I know it’s something he’s been focusing on.”

That sort of commitment to being better on the defensive end is what many think the Jazz need to do to take the next step forward — and with their fearless leader taking charge on being better, Utah’s five-game winning streak could extend much further. 

4.) Royce O’Neale Finding A Rhythm
While many different things can be attributed to Utah’s recent five-game winning streak, mainly the return of Mitchell, the emergence of Azubuike, and the improved play of the bench, there’s still one part that deserves a ton of credit.

It should come as no coincidence that Royce O’Neale’s improved play has been a major catalyst in the Jazz turning things around since the calendar flipped to February. 

O’Neale entered this season as Utah’s primary defender, typically taking on the most challenging assignments. Despite that role, O’Neale struggled early on, never looking entirely comfortable on either end of the court. 

But as the season has gone on, O’Neale has found his rhythm on the defensive end. Not only has he been locking down opposing teams’ best wing players, but he’s also been thriving with insane hustle and energy. Over the past two weeks, O’Neale has been winning nearly every 50-50 ball, and that sort of energy has been contagious. 

Most impressively, his offense has also been at its best. In February, he’s averaging a season-high 9.4 points, doing so by shooting efficiently from the arc and attacking the rim in transition. 

This version of O’Neale is precisely what the Jazz need, so it’s no shock that a five-game winning streak has followed. 

5.) Finish Strong
When the calendar flipped to February, it officially meant that nightmare of January was over. But work still needed to be done to ensure that the same issues that plagued the Jazz last month wouldn’t carry over.

What helped was that the team began February with a six-game homestand, critical after playing 11 road games in January. Being in the comfortable confines of Vivint Arena has been beneficial as Utah is currently on a five-game winning streak, their best streak since the end of December. 

Utah closes out the homestand with a game against Houston on Monday night, a team they lost to last month. Getting revenge and a victory would officially put January behind them and have the team looking good heading into the all-star break.


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