SALT LAKE CITY — Coming off an emotionally charged win on Friday, the Utah Jazz's biggest opponent was themselves on Saturday.
The Houston Rockets unprecedented run of injuries (they had 10 players either inactive or out for Saturday's game) has turned an already bad team to one just trying to survive. Their co-leading scorer on Saturday, Khyri Thomas, had only been with the team for about 27 hours before Saturday's tip.
So when it came to talent, there was no comparison between the Jazz and Rockets. The only question was if Utah would have enough intensity to make it an easy night or an unnecessary difficult one.
The answer: somewhere in the middle.
As expected, the Jazz beat the owners of the league's worst record, winning 124-116 to claim their fifth straight victory.
What was more of a surprise: Rudy Gobert, Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles and Royce O'Neale were all still in the game at the end.
"Would have been nice to keep the lead for a bit longer and get out a little earlier, but they're a team that plays extremely hard for 48 minutes," Ingles said.
That's usually a token answer when players are searching for something kind to say about another team, but in this case, it's fully real. The Rockets will likely finish last in the standings and receive a nice draft pick for their efforts. That doesn't matter to the player they have now.
The long injury report meant Utah, which won its 50th game on Saturday, was playing against players that in many cases are literally playing for their jobs. That tends to light a fire inside.
"They play hard as hell," said Ingles, who had 14 points, seven assists and six rebounds. "I don't know if they have contracts or their playing for contracts or playing for jobs."
No doubt, it would have been nice for the Jazz starters to get some extra rest, especially with the heavier minutes many have played due to Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell being out. But there was a perk about playing a young and inspired Rockets team: It gave the Jazz some game reps against a switching defense that they'll surely run into in the playoffs.
Many teams hide their best game plans for the postseason. The Rockets, though, had no reason to do that. Even as the Jazz continue their way to a No. 1 seed, teams that can switch when Gobert sets a pick have the best chance of disrupting Utah's offense. The Rockets did that on nearly every possession.
"It's hard to roll if it's that physical and that's something that impacts the game — our bigs being able to roll and roll cleanly or roll quickly," coach Quin Snyder said. "Now there's things we can do against that but oftentimes when the game is like that, you just got to move it, and if you move it side to side, you get a chance to drive close outs and in isolation. If you go by somebody, there's a good chance that because they're shifted so much you're gonna get another opportunity. I thought George (Niang) did a really good job of that tonight being ready to shoot."
"Really good" might be underselling it a bit. Niang tied his career-high with 24 points. He went 9 of 12 from the field and was 6 of 8 from the 3-point land. The only negative about his performance was he's gonna have a little less in his bank account.
On his final 3-pointer of the evening, the shot that tied his career-high, Houston's Armoni Brooks rubbed his face as he tried to contest the shot.
"I thought he had brushed me in the face on purpose, so I told him that he was too late — like he wasn't going to get to my shot anyway," Niang recalled, lightheartedly. "(Referee) Marc Davis decided that was worthy of a technical. I understand it's taunting so there's really nothing more than I can say about it because I don't want to get fined again."
Jordan Clarkson had 21 points, Bogdanovic added 20 points and Gobert had 13 points and 14 rebounds.
Utah has just one week and four games left of what has been a daunting regular season schedule. Saturday's game marked a big milestone: the team's final back-to-back.
"Obviously you could tell with how we were playing we were fatigued, but we push through," Niang said. "Guys are working really hard and it's the end of the year and, but I think at the end of the day, we have an end goal in mind and that's obviously to be No. 1 at the end of the season and at the end of the playoffs."
Playoff update: With the victory, the Jazz now hold a 1.5 game lead on the Phoenix Suns for the No. 1 seed in the West. The Suns will play at the Lakers on Sunday. The Jazz will next play at Golden State on Monday.