SALT LAKE CITY — Ekpe Udoh went to the locker room to gather his thoughts. Rudy Gobert had just been ejected less than three minutes into the game and Udoh knew that he was going to be needed.
“I had to come back and use the restroom and get my mind right,” Udoh said. “I knew what time it was.”
It was Udoh’s time to shine. And he was ready for it.
On two possessions in the first half, Udoh was switched onto Houston Rocker guard Chris Paul. The two were teammates from their time with the Los Angeles Clippers and Udoh was eager for the matchup.
“I’ve been waiting for those,” Udoh said with a smile. His days in L.A. were spent switching onto Paul in practices. Udoh knew what was coming.
That’s why Paul might not have been too excited for Udoh to switch on him again. Because on both of those possessions, Paul drove and, both times, Udoh stopped him. It wasn’t just that Paul missed a shot. Udoh stayed in front of the quicker point guard and never gave him a good look at the hoop.
And that was far from the only meaningful contribution Udoh made during Utah’s 118-91 win over Houston. He finished with nine points and seven rebounds in 19 minutes.
By sharing a roster with Gobert and Derrick Favors, Udoh knows that he’s not going to get a lot of time in games. He’s the third center on a team with two starting caliber fives. He knows the situation. But he also knows anything can happen at any time. Be it an injury, foul trouble, or the reigning defensive player of the year getting ejected minutes into a game, Udoh knows he's always one strange instance from being thrown into a meaningful role.
So when that time comes — like it did Thursday — he's ready for it. And Udoh wants his performance against the Rockets to be an example for all end-of-bench players. He wasn't expected to get into the contest, but in front of a national television audience, Udoh delivered against some of the game's biggest stars.
“I love to play the game,” Udoh said. “I want to be here for my teammates. It’s important for the young hoopers in the world that are out of the rotation to keep working, just stay ready, your time is going to come and when it comes, the work you put in will show.”
And his solo night highlighted the Jazz’s collective mindset on Thursday. A mindset that was clear to Gobert, as he watched the game from inside the tunnels of Vivint Arena.
“It shows the character of the team,” Gobert said. “When one guy goes down, other guys step up. That’s what they did tonight.”
Udoh wasn’t alone in his surprise contributions. Dante Exum, who had fallen out of the rotation in the last few games, came off the bench to score 15 points and hand out five assists all while playing superb defense on the perimeter. And then there was Derrick Favors, who filled in for Gobert by scoring 24 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Players played above their typical roles on Thursday and the result was one of the Jazz’s best performances of the year.
"The game is always going to throw you adversity, it’s wrapped different ways," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. "The way that Derrick responded was terrific. Ekpe, as well. For him to come in and do that. Coaches, we always say, ‘be ready, you never know when you’re time will come,’ and all that. Sometimes those words seem hollow. Tonight, Ekpe showed why being that much of a professional and that ready, both physically and mentally, to play. And then you can’t say enough about Fave. What he gave us tonight was unique.”
The beginning of the game was unique, too. The Jazz just had the players ready to deal with it — players like Udoh.