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The Jazz Can Win Without Ricky Rubio

Utah evened its series as Alec Burks and Dante Exum stepped up to power the squad past Houston

Joe Ingles Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Utah tied up its second-round series against Houston, 1-1, with a 116-108 win Wednesday. Here are three takeaways from a game the Rockets almost stole away.

NBA Reddit’s Favorite Guys Just Won It for the Jazz

It wasn’t Donovan Mitchell, but two players we were hyped for back in 2015 that saved the Jazz in Game 2. Alec Burks and Dante Exum combined to make up for the missing Ricky Rubio, who injured his hamstring in the series-clinching win over the Thunder and missed games 1 and 2 against Houston. Utah began the game with Mitchell playing the Rubio role, as the rookie eyeballed assists more than he looked to score.

Mitchell was nearly fluent in Spanish and on his way to a fully grown man bun in the second quarter, racking up seven dimes by halftime. (Last game, he had five total.) But Mitchell also went into the break with three fouls, making Utah all the more desperate for someone who could create on offense. Quin Snyder went with Burks, who has slowly emerged from the shadows this postseason. He finished with 17 points and six assists off the bench and pumped life into the Jazz’s offense. Exum had his share of offensive highlights, too—

—but he should be applauded foremost for performing one of the NBA’s toughest and most annoying jobs: locking down James Harden. The best foul-drawer in the league went to the line a playoff-best 13 times, but also hit only two of his 10 3s. Exum was nearly as pesky to Harden as Harden is to his defenders. [Shoulder-shimmies into keyboard.]

The Jazz already have their fair share of unexpectedly high-quality role players—math teacher Joe Ingles, rookie Royce O’Neale, transplant Jae Crowder—but wouldn’t have evened the series without these two joining that list. As long as Rubio is out, which could be another one or two games, their presence gives Utah a chance.

The Bigs Are Still Feeling Each Other Out

Rudy Gobert had his fair share of did-you-forget-you’re-an-NBA-player moments Wednesday. Those included, but were not limited to: passive moments on offense (who could’ve predicted?!), ignoring the fact he’s a 7-footer (Jae Crowder had to tell him, “Dunk that motherfucker. What you waiting for?”), and literally I’m Rick James, Bitch–ing Harden in the third quarter:

But despite those gaffes, Gobert was much, much better this go-round. He outrebounded Clint Capela, 14-11, and outblocked him, 3-2. The Rockets big man outscored him, of course (21-15)—Harden and Chris Paul spoon-feed it to Capela inside with ease, and, as in on Burks as I now am, he’ll never be that for Gobert. (Gobert also will never finish around the rim like that for anyone.) But Gobert’s 13 points at the half were a huge improvement from Game 1, when he went into the break with a goose egg in the field goal attempts column.

Capela was the clear winner Sunday and a dominant presence in the paint Wednesday. But it is encouraging to see Gobert find his footing, especially against a team as drive-heavy as the Rockets.

Jingles All the Way to a Win

Houston leans on the 3-point shot the most of any team in the NBA, but the Jazz had the best deep shooter in Game 2. Joe Ingles was Utah’s top scorer, going 7-for-9 from distance and ending with 27 points. His accuracy kept the team alive while Mitchell had an off night; any other game against the Rockets, the rookie going 2-for-8 from 3 would’ve sealed Utah’s coffin. (My social media manager typed that.) All was forgiven and forgotten when Mitchell did this:

His highs are so high that any small spurt—like the sequence that dunk was sandwiched between, after a lockdown on Harden and before kicking it out to Ingles—makes up for an ugly game. But maybe I feel that way only because Jingles bailed him out. Imagine a game in which Ingles and Mitchell are both hitting their shots against Houston—is that another Jazz dub I smell?