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SALT LAKE CITY — Rudy Gobert had a fever of 102 degrees and Hassan Whiteside’s concussion symptoms returned.
It wasn’t a good day for Utah Jazz centers.
It’s crazy, then, how good of a night it was for their team.
With both of their main big men out, the Jazz rolled into Denver and beat the Nuggets 115-109 Wednesday to earn their 10th straight road victory.
“When you’re forced to do something different — whether it be because of personnel or whatever reason — maybe you find something in that process that can help you when you do have your whole team,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said before the game.
The Jazz’s hand was forced. They got third-string center Udoka Azubuike back, but he was on a minutes restriction in his first game back from a severe ankle sprain. On top of that, he hadn’t really ever played any meaningful NBA minutes.
Against the best center in the league, Utah had to go small.
During the game, Rudy Gay couldn’t help but make the joke as he turned to referee Zach Zarba and said: “Man, I came in this league as a shooting guard. Now, I’m a center.”
He was the center the Jazz needed Wednesday.
Utah has toyed with some small-ball lineups here and there this season, but on Wednesday it was forced to fully commit to it. Gay answered the call and scored 18 points and grabbed seven rebounds as the Jazz looked, by far, their most comfortable in the small-ball lineups.
“When you play more minutes a certain way, guys begin to figure some things out,” Snyder said.
It was an inspired performance: Down three rotation pieces (Joe Ingles was out due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols), the Jazz came together for their most memorable win of the season.
Gay stepped up in an usual role, and Eric Paschall arrived in Denver in the late afternoon after spending time with his family following the birth of his son to play a key 13 minutes. Azubuike’s first real NBA minutes came in a start against the reigning MVP, and he strung together 16 minutes filled with stretches of solid play.
“When you want to win you have to have somebody step up and do some things that they’re not comfortable with,” Gay said. “And you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable, and try to make as much plays, do as much as you can.”
One person that wasn’t uncomfortable in the slightest Wednesday: Bojan Bogdanovic.
The veteran forward had a season-high 36 points on 12-of-20 shooting as he abused the Nuggets in the post. There was a stretch in the third quarter where the Nuggets switched multiple point guards onto Bogdanovic. The Jazz happily took that matchup over and over again.
“I’m just trying to be aggressive, Mike (Conley) and Donovan (Mitchell) are looking for me as well because they can feel that I’m in a good mood in great shape, especially at the end of the third quarter,” Bogdanovic said.
Bogdanovic had 11 of his 36 points in the third quarter as the Jazz outscored the Nuggets 31-22 to take a double-digit lead.
“We couldn’t stop him,” Nikola Jokic said.
Bogdanovic set a career-high 13 rebounds and Royce O’Neale grabbed 11 boards to help make up for Utah’s lack of size down low. The Jazz also committed only seven turnovers on the night, which helped overcome Jokic’s monster stat line of 26 points, 21 rebounds and 11 assists. Mitchell finished with 17 points on a rough 8-for-22 shooting night in the win.
In the end, it was one of Utah’s best wins of the season.
“It feels like the biggest win right at this moment,” Snyder said. “I think it’s certainly the most unique game that we’ve won this year.”