SALT LAKE CITY — His right arm raised, Royce O’Neale literally skipped back down the court in excitement — and the shot he had helped set up hadn’t even gone in.
At least it hadn’t yet.
The early celebration came after yet another round of cross-court passing that eventually led to Bojan Bogdanovic open in the corner. And when the shot found the bottom of the net, the rest of his teammates — plus 18,300 of his closest friends at Vivint Arena — joined in.
So much for the Jazz not having beat a good team recently.
Utah ran away from the Indiana Pacers 118-88 Monday to get their 30th win of the season.
Donovan Mitchell scored 25 points and Rudy Gobert had 20 points and 14 rebounds to lead the Jazz.
The Jazz came into the game as one of the hottest teams in the league, having only lost twice since Dec. 11. But most of those wins (all but one, to be exact) have come against teams with losing records.
The Pacers (28-16) weren’t one of those teams. Indiana came into Monday’s game winners of five in a row and holding the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.
Yes, the Pacers were playing their second game in as many nights (and both were at elevation, to boot), but the Jazz did what they have been doing to most of their opponents lately — use a dominant offense to pull away.
The Jazz led by double digits for much of the night after another sizzling start and finished off the Pacers with a dominant fourth quarter where they scored 38 points.
The Jazz had four players score at least 15 points and shot 54% from the field (38.7% from 3). Over the last month, the Jazz have benefited from playing some of the worst defenses teams in the league — Indiana is not that.
That’s what made Monday’s win so impressive. Sure, the Pacers likely had some tired legs, but they still made Utah work on offense. One pass or one screen, didn’t beat the Pacers on Monday. The Jazz’s patience on offense did. When Indiana took away one option, the Jazz found another one.
The Jazz were so good that even Mitchell’s offensive explosion in the fourth quarter (he scored 12 points, mainly going right at Aaron Holiday in a bit of one-on-one fun) was seen more for its entertainment value than its impact on the game’s outcome. By that point, the Jazz had things well in hand.
“We just wanted to get out to get a win and have a great game, 48 minutes,” Gobert said. “We haven’t beaten these guys for a little bit so we wanted to come out ready tonight.”
It hadn’t just been a while since the Jazz beat Indiana, it had been a while since they even had kept it close.
Over the last two years, the Jazz have lost to the Pacers by scores of 121-102, 121-94 and 121-88. So, yeah, it felt pretty good to return the favor a bit on Monday.
Utah held the Pacers to just 42% shooting, 27% from the 3-point line and even though the Jazz turned it over 21 times, they gave up just 11 transition points.
“I think we didn’t give up second shots, for one thing,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “When they did go for a run, our defense stayed solid. I thought there were a few situations offensively that we weren’t as strong with the ball as we needed to be and that is Indiana. They are quick and long and have size. Credit them with making some plays. But I thought, for the most part, when you are consistent defensively you give yourself a chance for good things.”
And one of the best things? Mike Conley.
In his second game back from injury, Mike Conley scored 14 points on 6 of 8 shooting and two assists in 18 minutes.
“Oh yeah man, that felt real good,” Conley said. “I’ve been feeling really good for a while, so I just missed being on the court and am happy to be out there with those guys. The coaching staff and players are making it easy on me, and it is easy basketball with those guys.”
It’s easy. It’s fun.
That’s why O’Neale was skipping down the court.