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An ode to Utah’s heroes down the stretch

When Conley and Mitchell left the Jazz rotation due to injury, heroes up and down the roster stepped up to preserve their shot at the #1 seed

Denver Nuggets v Utah Jazz
Georges Niang and Bojan Bogdanovic weren’t just key to an incredible victory over the Denver Nuggets last week, but since injury woes befell the team weeks ago.
Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

The date is April 16th.

The Indiana Pacers are in town to tussle with the Utah Jazz. Despite some recent inconsistency, the Jazz remain atop the league’s standings, but just 1.0 game ahead of the Phoenix Suns.

There’s 17 games to go. Virtually everything has broke right for Utah thus far. Can it continue just one more month?

Sadly, the side effects of such a unique season that had tripped up most franchises to date suddenly caught up to Utah.

Early in the 3rd quarter, Donovan Mitchell suffered an ankle sprain while diving for a loose ball. He would leave and not return. A miraculous push in the second half helped the Jazz secure a massive, comeback win.

The Jazz would continue to seesaw their way through the next two weeks with a loss to the Lakers and back-to-back losses against the Timberwolves.

Now the date is April 27th, the day after the final bout with Minnesota. Not two weeks since Mitchell’s injury and the Utah Jazz announce that Mike Conley will miss time to rehab his his reaggravated hamstring.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Utah Jazz
Ahead of the final stretch of the season, with so much on the line, the Utah Jazz would face such tests without their starting two guards in Conley and Mitchell.
Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

As untimely as Mitchell’s injury was, the Jazz “survived”. At this juncture they remain with the league’s best record but still just 1.0 game ahead of the Suns. But with Conley down as well, things began to look grim.

Conley and Mitchell average 33.3 FGA’s per night for Utah in 63.2 minutes of action. That’s a massive playing time and usage hole to fill. The Jazz have incredible 9-man depth, but take out 2 of those 9 and the replacement value from the 10-15 guys is a big drop off.

But such was Utah’s reality and most Jazz fans’ concern. How would they survive?

Fast forward and the date is May 10th. Nearly 4 weeks without Mitchell and the Jazz are 8-4, again with the league’s best point differential. Nearly 2 weeks without Conley and a 6-1 record to show for it.

How on earth did they do it?

The truth of the matter is they did it by committee. Such is the strength, and design, of the franchise. While credit belongs to every cast member for their performance these last weeks, certain Jazz men played the lead hero and deserve a special round of recognition.

This is an ode to them: Trent Forrest, Georges Niang, and Bojan Bogdanovic

Trent Forrest

Without our starting two guards, there was a lot of time and production to fill. Ingles and Clarkson assumed a portion of the extra duties, but they already shoulder a fraction of the nightly duties. The Jazz needed someone else.

Rookie guard Trent Forrest, who’d seen approximately 18 minutes of run in non-garbage time action, was called upon to lend a hand as the reserve point guard.

Up to this point, Forrest had been underwhelming even against other 3rd stringers.

In 87 minutes of total playing time, he had a usage rate of just 10.8% shooting a paltry 47.4% True Shooting. He did take care of the ball and setup his teammates (2.86 assist/turnover ratio), but he appeared allergic to rebounding the ball at a 3.9% rate.

Despite all the signs pointing to the conclusion that he wasn’t ready, he rose to the occasion in a big way.

San Antonio Spurs v Utah Jazz
Trent Forrest contributed excellent defense given his lack of experience
Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

In 153 minutes since Mitchell’s injury, Trent Forrest’s usage rate bumped up to 14.3%. His efficiency has skyrocketed to 60.8% TS. He’s still taking care of the ball (2.75 assist/turnover ratio), and his total rebound rate has risen to a decent 9.1%.

He played excellent defense as well given his lack of experience. Defending Chris Paul, Fred Van Vleet, Dejounte Murray, and Austin Rivers wasn’t a picnic nor was without mistake, but he held his own and had some very nice plays.

In fairness, it hasn’t all been roses. He still can’t shoot from the perimeter (18.8% from 3 on 16 attempts) and is still learning how to jump start the team amidst a rough stretch.

But in terms of what the Jazz were missing and what they needed, Forrest has more than stepped up; he’s surprised and delighted fans!

Georges Niang

After a slow start to the season, Georges had rounded out a really nice campaign, one that is setting himself up for a lucrative contract after this year.

In 14.4 minutes per game before Mitchell’s injury, he was averaging 5.8 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 0.7 assists on 16.2% usage and 58.4% true shooting.

Since April 16th, however, he’s getting 22.1 minutes per night averaging 11.3 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 1.4 assists on a 20.3% usage and 62.1% TS.

Saturday night vs the Houston Rockets was his best game of the stretch with 24 points on 12 shots, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals. He was a key contributor to the record breaking night against the Sacramento Kings with 5 made 3’s.

Niang has had to retain the solid defense he’s sported this season against tougher opponents in more minutes. He’s done a good job and continues to buck the narrative that he’s a bad defender.

Given how he’s stepped up in the absence of Conley and Mitchell, Niang is preparing for a critical role in the playoffs where he could continue to pad an already impressive resume ahead of free agency.

Bojan Bogdanovic

No one has stepped up quite like Bojan. Despite all the ups and downs of the season, including rough shooting stretches and continued wrist surgery rehab, he broke out in a big, big way when Utah needed it most.

Prior to Mitchell’s injury, Bogdanovic was averaging 15.4 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 1.8 assists on 20.7% usage and 57.1% true shooting. Though not the season fans were hoping for, all-in-all it’s been respectable.

Then he went nuclear, averaging 23.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 2.2 assists on 28.1% usage and 66.3% TS.

In one of the most pivotal games of the year given the repercussions of a loss, Bojan Bogdanovic had a career night against the Denver Nuggets last Friday with 48 points on 23 shots, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals to seal a win.

48 or more points in a game has been tallied by players across the NBA just 18 times this season. Bojan did so on the 3rd best efficiency (90.5% TS).

Bogdanovic did not suit up for the Jazz during the playoffs last season where the Jazz were bounced in the first round by the Nuggets. Getting him in rhythm ahead of the most anticipated post-season in two decades has been a big deal during the final push and could prove to be the catalyst to an unforgettable run.

While many other Jazzmen, particularly Rudy Gobert and Joe Ingles, were essential to the team’s success, much of what they do is done every night. Utah specifically needed supporting cast members to shoulder an additional load to supplement the incredible play of Gobert, Ingles, and others.

Forrest, Niang, and Bogdanovic were those players. They stepped out of their comfort zone, assumed greater responsibility, and did the work needed doing.

With just 4 games remaining, including tonight’s matchup in San Francisco against the Warriors, there are few opportunities (if any) for Conley and Mitchell to get their feet wet ahead of the playoffs. We may not see them again until the first round.

With that reality staring the franchise in the face, it makes you appreciate the success of the regular season and the incredible rise from Jazz heroes down the stretch to preserve a strong hold on the #1 seed.