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Dante Exum puts on defensive clinic against James Harden in Utah's Game 2 victory
In one of the greatest displays by an Australian duo in NBA playoffs history, the Utah Jazz, roared back into life with a hard-fought 116-108 victory over the Houston Rockets in Game 2.
The Jazz received sterling performances from Dante Exum and Joe Ingles as the Australians combined for 36 points (box score). Ingles especially, scored a career-high 27 points, and hit 7 of 9 threes. Everyone has come to expect this level of play from Ingles, who is fast becoming one of the most important members of the Utah Jazz team.
But it’s Dante Exum’s performance, which has raised eyebrows. The fourth year guard did his offseason contract extension hopes a world of good with his dynamic performance, finishing with 9 points (including 2-for-3 from deep), 4 rebounds and 2 assists in the win. Exum's scoring tied his second best playoffs performance, but more impressively, finished the game with +10, good enough for third best in the game.
The Jazz were ferocious in the 18 minutes Exum saw on the night as they went on run after run and kept Houston’s scorers at bay. Exum’s offensive output was important, but it was his defence against MVP candidate James Harden that swayed the game in Utah's favour.
Dante Exum did a fantastic job of taking away Harden's airspace. He gets called for a foul here, but it's a dubious one. Exum gets bumped off the ball, and immediately comes back up, wanting more. It's great and sets a tone. pic.twitter.com/yV1eP7aSfz
— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) May 3, 2018
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Exum matched up against Harden 22 times on the night, which was the most by any Jazz player. On these matchups, Harden scored only two points as Exum was able to control Houston’s star guard from taking the contest over.
Standing at 6’6” with a wingspan of 6’9”, Exum has long been heralded as a potential defensive stopper. Against Harden and the Rockets, he showed just why those opinions were justified.
"You can't put any one guy and hang that on one player," Snyder shared post-game (via CBS Sports). "We said, 'Just try to make [Harden] work.' He had 21 in the first half, so he's still going to be able to be efficient and score. I think Dante has some size and some length and we've had confidence in Dante taking difficult matchups."
To cap the performance off, Exum performed arguably the best dunk of his NBA career to date, jamming it home over an outstretched PJ Tucker with under a minute remaining.
The expression on Utah’s bench said it all, as it completed Exum’s return to prominence from the depths of despair he had miserably ridden through to start the season. After missing his entire sophomore year thanks to an ACL reconstruction, Exum had experienced a slow third year, while his knee slowly returned to 100 percent. As such, big things were expected from the former fifth overall pick this season.
Exum quickly went about expelling these bad memories in Summer League. He put up strong numbers next to star rookie guard Donovan Mitchell, which had many Jazz and Australian fans dreaming of what could be. Then tragedy struck as he dislocated his shoulder in a preseason game and was ruled out indefinitely. As a result, Exum missed the first 68 games this season, while his NBA career dangled by a thread.
Thanks to the brilliance of the Jazz performance staff, Exum was able to return to the lineup before season's end and actually now looks better than ever. His latest shoulder injury has again put the brakes on his potential trajectory in this league. The work he has put in behind the scenes appears to be paying off and after a performance like today, who knows how high Exum’s ceiling could be, when it comes to the NBA?
Exum and the Utah Jazz play again on Saturday morning, 5 May 2018 12.30pm AEST as they host the Houston Rockets in Game 3 of this series.