The Triple Team: Utah Jazz bring energy, effort that was missing last year to win first game of 2022-23

New-look Jazz takedown MVP Nikola Jokic’s Nuggets to give Will Hardy his first win as head coach.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 123-102 win over the Denver Nuggets from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Ah, right, that’s what it looks like to watch a team play hard

As we’ve had so many postmortems of the last era of the Jazz, in the end, so often it came down to this: they often didn’t play hard enough when it counted most. Perhaps the most memeable example of this was when Donovan Mitchell’s controller shut off while defending in the Dallas series, but I can come up with a million more from the Clippers series or Denver series where an extra bit of oomph may have made a difference.

And then, in literal Game 1 of the new era, we remember what energy and effort can be: game-defining. The Jazz got out to a 22-point first-half lead, thanks to getting fully half of their missed shots and putting them up again toward the basket. A 26-10 second-chance points lead was nearly totally responsible for the Jazz’s win tonight.

In particular, Jarred Vanderbilt had 12 rebounds in the first half. He only played 12 minutes in the half, due to foul trouble, but he got 12 rebounds anyway.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson (00) fires up the crowd during a timeout as the Utah Jazz host the Denver Nuggets in the team's home and season opener at Vivint Arena, Oct. 19, 2022.

The last Jazz non-center to get 12 rebounds in a half? Trevor Booker, in 2015. And honestly, it kind of feels like it’s been that long since the Jazz had a player go after loose balls with the verve Vanderbilt did tonight.

It wasn’t just the rebounding, though. I also thought it the effort was contagious — we saw Rudy Gay tie up Nikola Jokic, we saw Walker Kessler get a tie-up with Michael Porter, and so on.

Last year, the Jazz were very last in the NBA by drawing only 10 charges all season long, according to PBPStats.com. Last year, the Jazz were a bottom-10 team in terms of their speed on the court. And of course, the Jazz had a tiny lineup last season. Now, they’re drawing offensive fouls, now they’re athletic, now their “small forward” is 7-0, not 6-4.

Is that enough to win a lot of games? Of course not. The Jazz will face more opponents that manage to make more than five threes, say, and out-skill the Jazz’s effort. And it’s easy to bring huge amounts of energy in the home opener, but what happens in January?

Still, it was monumentally, obviously different — a tone-setter for the era to come, even if not every game ends in this result.

2. Bench dominance

The Jazz had 68 bench points. The Nuggets had 24.

We should acknowledge that the Nuggets have a uniquely terrible bench. It was basically responsible for the team not being one of the best teams last year, and they haven’t done much to improve it. Bruce Brown is nice, and Bones Hyland is an up-and-coming scorer, but I’m sorry — you can’t rely on DeAndre Jordan in the year 2022 and still look yourself in the mirror.

But I do think it’s also true that the Jazz’s bench might be pretty decent!

First, Collin Sexton can absolutely play the Jordan Clarkson role off the bench— he’ll shoot fewer threes, but probably draw more fouls. Defensively, both are pretty iffy. But scoring 20 points in 20 minutes basically describes Sexton to a tee.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Jazz bench celebrates the win as the Utah Jazz defeat the Denver Nuggets 123-102 during the team's home and season opener at Vivint Arena, Oct. 19, 2022.

Malik Beasley is truly an excellent shooter. He was extremely motivated tonight going up against his former Denver team — he and coach Micahel Malone apparently do not get along — but he’s going to be useful out there if the bench unit can get any ball movement and find him for open threes.

Kessler seems like a legitimately useful bench center from day one, which is pretty remarkable. He’s just gigantic, he moves well, he finishes well around the rim ... he’ll commit too many fouls, but he’ll be at least serviceable and maybe even good.

And Gay is, uh, up-and-down, but there will be nights when he makes his threes and looks great.

This might also be a high-water mark in terms of shotmaking for that group: three of those four players, plus Talen Horton-Tucker, are known for taking some pretty terrible shots. But it’s not a dumpster fire like some other benches, and shouldn’t be a huge minus for the Jazz this year, I don’t think.

3. Will Hardy’s first game

Hey, it was Will Hardy’s first game. And he won! He got a water-bottle shower from the team after the win in the locker room. His wife came to his first game’s postgame presser.

I still haven’t really figured out Hardy yet, though there will be so many more interviews and off-court chats over the course of the year where that can happen. In Quin Snyder’s first year, he was really excited to share his vision for the club and every particular detail — at one point, he walked me through a pick-and-roll screen angle issue on the court, literally physically moving me on the court, just to show me what he was trying to teach his players. Hardy’s been less eager in media sessions.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz head coach Will Hardy makes a call as the Utah Jazz host the Denver Nuggets in the team's home and season opener at Vivint Arena, Oct. 19, 2022.

But we asked Malone about his first day as a coach, and I thought his response was really interesting:

“When you’re a first-year head coach, at least for me, I was coaching every dribble. You are fighting for your life. Every possession matters. You’re over-coaching, you’re trying to prove yourself that ‘I am worthy of this job.’

“That’s been the best thing for me is now eight years into Denver, ‘I don’t give a s---, I’m very comfortable with who I am, where I’m at. This job is not one where you have to worry about keeping people happy,” Malone said. “My advice to Will would be: Just be yourself. Be yourself. ... The players will respect you. They will respond to you.”

Hardy’s authenticity has been a consistent theme of early reviews on him, and so maybe it’s easier for him to be himself than other coaches. Tonight, he put his stamp on things with his team’s energetic display — but still allowed them to do what they did best. It meant a win.

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