Udoka Azubuike's surprise heroics anchor Jazz in win over Knicks

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SALT LAKE CITY — Donovan Mitchell stopped his somewhat general and broad answer about Utah's bench and made sure to single out one player.

"I gotta take a second to really shout out 'Dok," Mitchell said. "He's taken this opportunity and ran with it. He's fighting; he's competing."

With five minutes remaining in Utah's 113-104 win over New York Monday at Vivint Arena, Azubuike was thrust into an unfamiliar role.

The Jazz were clinging onto a 1-point lead and Hassan Whiteside had just fouled out. Suddenly, the second-year center from Kansas, who a few weeks ago had rarely seen the court, was tasked with anchoring a defense in crunch time.

How did it go?

The Knicks didn't score again until a free throw with 1:03 left in the game.

Azubuike finished with 14 rebounds on the night, with five of them coming in those pivotal moments at the end of the game. After securing just three defensive boards through the first three quarters, Azubuike grabbed five rebounds in the final minutes.

"He was fighting for every board and trying to block shots, trying to scramble, trying to do every little thing to win," Mitchell said. "And when you see a guy, he's fighting — I'm not gonna lie he was the trendsetter with that for us. He just continuously was making extra plays. I'm really happy for him; I'm proud of him."

The Knicks had destroyed the Jazz on the offensive glass throughout the game and finished with 20 rebounds on the night. Mitchell Robinson had 10 offensive rebounds on his own and frequently got the best of Azubuike early on in the game.

During the final quarter, though, New York had just two offensive rebounds. The most impressive thing about the second-year center's surprise heroics may have been that he was able to recover from the poor start to play such a pivotal role at the end.

"When a guy has nine offensive rebounds in the first quarter, you can kind of get down on yourself, especially in a situation where you're not typically playing a lot," Mitchell said. "But he stuck with it. He listened to us; he was vocal, he was making energy plays and I always tell him, 'Man, if you were gonna mess up, have it be 110%.' You see that."

It's even better when that effort is there and the mess ups are not there — that's how Azubuike finished the game Monday.

"He's guarding, he's being physical and his presence has really kind of picked us up as a unit when he's out there because we know he's out there just to be a bruiser and change the flow of the game," Mike Conley said. "So we've been proud of the way that he's progressed and continuing to improve and learn as he goes."

What happens with Azubuike when Rudy Gobert comes back? He has started the last two games over Hassan Whiteside, and has shown well. Does that mean he'll take Whiteside's reserve spot? Not necessarily. But the fact that there is even a debate shows the quick progress made by the former first-round pick. Coach Quin Snyder even called his competitiveness a "differentiating factor" to Monday's win.

"I told him this in the locker room — it's not that he didn't do a good job the last two games," Snyder said. "But tonight, playing against (Nerlens) Noel, Robinson, (Julius) Randle , (Obi) Toppin, I mean, it's a war down there on the glass. And even when he didn't get it, someone had to hit him in order for him not to get it, and he hit a few people. So I mean, just that competitive component, and that gives your team a lift."

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