The Triple Team: Utah Jazz beat Memphis Grizzlies. Was that a game last year’s team would have won?

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 124-123 win over the Memphis Grizzlies from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Last year’s Jazz would have lost that game.

It’s time to give Danny Ainge his props.

“I don’t anticipate that our team is going to win as many games as we’d won,” Ainge said in the offseason after trading Donovan Mitchell, “but I believe that it’s going to be more entertaining and more exciting basketball.”

He was absolutely right.

OK, yeah, last year’s team started 7-1, but even then, we were questioning the team’s vibes. Even when the team’s offense was the best in the league, we wondered where the joy was — it was a workmanlike performance, but not a vivacious one. And then when the team encountered any kind of difficulty, they got stuck in mud.

This year’s team is so much fun. From the 3:33 mark of the fourth to the 23 second mark was incredible basketball to watch: no timeouts, just two teams trading blows. Desmond Bane an awesome three, then a Lauri Markkanen dunk. Dillon Brooks midrange pull-up answered by a Kelly Olynyk driving layup. A Collin Sexton block to an Olynyk three to grab the lead, then a Malik Beasley three to end it. Just scintillating stuff — the crowd so loud, the momentum back and forth, and a Jazz team eventually pushing themselves to victory.

It’s just so pure. Everyone is playing their hardest, everyone is playing with one another — there aren’t obvious passes being missed or eschewed. It just feels like basketball as it’s meant to be played.

And while we’re at it? One of the best parts of this season is how low the stakes are. Jazz fans, can I ask you: how bad did you feel when the team lost against Denver last night? Were you bitterly disappointed? Or just pretty fine with it?

Most of the fans I’ve spoken to feel the latter: the losses aren’t excruciating.

The wins are exceptional.

2. Running a real offense at the end of the game

For years, we’ve been forced to watch some ugly basketball at the end of games.

It wasn’t just the Jazz, but it was definitely also the Jazz: teams give the ball to their best player at the top of the arc, and either tell him to beat his defender in isolation, or send one screen to help get him free or cause a mismatch. From there, the success of the play is on that star to execute. If he does it, his team wins. If not, they lose.

But I posit that this is a choice: that you can successfully run your standard offense even in late-game situations, ones with multiple screens, cuts, drives, and so on, and find success. That’s what the Jazz have been doing in a lot of these clutch moments, and it works really well.

Take this Olynyk layup: instead of a high pick and roll, they run a side one with Sexton on the wing. It doesn’t work, and he moves the ball. Clarkson cuts to the middle, and Olynyk finds a way to seal off his mismatch. There’s passing, movement, multiple options.

The Jazz’s last 23 points were assisted tonight; you have to go all the way back to the seven-minute mark to find a play where a player kept the ball and scored himself. This way means that you get scoring from your non-stars: Clarkson didn’t score in the final five minutes, for example. But you just cause more problems for the defense.

“You have to guard multiple actions, multiple people, different scenarios, navigate a lot of different things. It’s tough. When you go to one single screen, pick and roll action, everybody can kind of load up, and get in their spots,” Olynyk said. “But it’s hard to stay with that and not go to that other stuff and fall into that. So it’s a testament to Will and everything that he’s instilling in this group. And it’s fun to play.”

3. How about Nickeil Alexander-Walker!

We seem to get a new player every game making a statement for himself — this time, it was Nickeil Alexander-Walker, having perhaps his best performance in a Jazz uniform. He finished with 11 points, three assists, two rebounds, two steals, a block, and just one turnover in 20 minutes on the court.

To be honest, the most impressive aspect of his game was his defense. He was assigned to Desmond Bane (and man, Bane is awesome), and did a really good job of getting into him and making his life difficult. You just do not see Bane turn the ball over like this very often, but Alexander-Walker’s 6-foot-9 wingspan creates the turnover.

I also appreciated his ability to grift. Grifting, remember, is defined as “to engage in petty or small-scale swindling,” and that’s exactly what some of the league’s most pesky players do: they swindle some value for their team through trickery, usually of the referees. He mentioned that he thought he might be able to draw some screening offensive fouls before the game, and here, he does exactly that.

The offensive end has been a problem for Alexander-Walker in the past. His passing has never been in question, he’s always had a great feel for that. But last year, when he was traded to the Jazz, he had the league’s worst shooting percentages. He says some offseason work has made him feel more confident in his shot. Tonight: 4-8 from the field; 2-5 from deep. Good enough.

Hardy so far has shown that, if a player plays well, he’ll continue to ride that later on in the game. Whether it be Simone Fontecchio, Talen Horton-Tucker, or now NAW, that flexibility has been really useful for the Jazz. It’s a deep team, and Hardy’s taking advantage of it.

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