Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 125-119 win over the Atlanta Hawks from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. The offense, led by Conley, did it again
I want to be clear about what the Jazz’s offense just did.
In the Hawks last game, they played the Milwaukee Bucks — you know, the team with the best-record in the league, undefeated at 9-0, with Giannis and Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez and all of that. The team that currently has the best odds to win the title this year. The Hawks held them to just 18 points in the fourth quarter.
The Utah Jazz, a team that had tied for the league’s worst championship odds entering the season, and which has zero league MVPs, scored 40 in the fourth quarter.
Again, we must ask: how are they doing this completely unexpected crazy thing? Honestly, the answer comes down to Mike Conley with good shooting around him. In the fourth quarter, he was magisterial.
He scored himself, he got to the free-throw line, he attacked in transition and the half court. Look, we all know by now: Conley’s not going to be finishing at the rim unless it’s a wide-open situation. But he’s still shifty enough that he can get defenders off-balance, out of place, and then take advantage perfectly.
Two plays in particular stood out. Watch here how he attacks the Hawks in transition, then cuts off Lauri Markkanen’s defender closing out. He actually even gives Malik Beasley a high five as the shot is in the air! That’s style.
Here, he splits the double-team, forcing the help, finding Jarred Vanderbilt for the lob.
35-year-olds aren’t supposed to be this quick, this difficult to guard.
The man scored two baskets tonight. Two. But he had 13 assists, just one turnover, and completely and totally set the tone for everything the Jazz did.
Props to Conley for re-inventing himself as a traditional pass-first-and-last point guard late in his career — it’s working incredibly well, and is a big reason for the Jazz’s success.
2. Walker Kessler stemming the tide
The fourth quarter that won them the game was even more remarkable given the performance that proceeded it, an ugly 3rd quarter where they looked lifeless, especially defensively.
And then I thought Walker Kessler came in and changed the game.
Kessler, a rookie, was coming to his hometown city, having been born and raised here. He estimated that he had about 50 people coming to the game that he knew — plus a bus full of kids from his high school. It was their first chance to see Kessler play in the NBA in person. For a 21-year-old, there’s probably not a bigger occasion.
All he did was play the best game of his career: 12 points on 6-6 shooting, adding six rebounds and three blocks. (I thought he could have been credited for another, but so it goes.) Once again, he really looked like a 5-year NBA veteran out there, with his ability to be in the right spots on both ends of the floor, and then execute based on those positions calmly and effectively.
Look at this defensive play, for example: Kessler’s watching Justin Holiday come off a screen high, so he might get the ball and shoot. So he hedges up high — but not enough to lose track of Onyeka Okongwu, either. Then, when Holiday gets the ball on the cut towards the rim, Kessler’s also in position to beat him to the basket. No matter what happens on the play, Kessler’s in a good spot.
He does even more, though: runs down the floor and beats two Hawks to the offensive end. The Jazz have a four on three, and it’s Kessler who gets the dunk to take advantage. (Negative points here go to Rudy Gay for cutting into Kessler’s space for no reason, but anyway.)
All in all, the Jazz had a 67 defensive rating when Kessler was on the floor tonight, and a 139 defensive rating when Kessler was off the floor.
It appears that the Jazz got a young Rudy Gobert in the Rudy Gobert trade! (OK, that’s not a sentence I fully believe — but Kessler’s been excellent so far.)
3. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the league
So, the Jazz appear very much to not be tanking. They are, indeed, as far away from tanking as can be.
Ironically, this isn’t necessarily because they didn’t try to tank. They made major moves that were much, much more about winning in the future than in the present. They traded Patrick Beverley for Talen Horton-Tucker, traded Bojan Bogdanovic for Kelly Olynyk. They waived a very useful Stanley Johnson so they could take one last look at Udoka Azubuike and Leandro Bolmaro.
All of these moves have turned out to be brilliant, but way sooner than they expected to be looked at as brilliant — for example, I assure you that the Jazz did not figure that THT would be better than Beverley this season, but he has been. Nor did they figure Olynyk would be better than Bogdanovic — they just wanted to make sure Markkanen would get that playing time, and didn’t think Kessler would be ready to play 36 minutes a night at center.
Presumably, further moves to get worse would also only make the team stronger, so powerful is the Jazz’s magic at this point.
But enjoyably, their need to tank has been reduced by the teams whose draft picks they own. Minnesota is really struggling right now; they lost again tonight. Anthony Edwards looks off, DeAngelo Russell has been far worse, and they can’t figure out the offense with Gobert on the floor. (Wolves watchers seem to agree that this isn’t really Gobert’s fault, but the point still remains.)
The Royce O’Neale trade somehow might result in an excellent pick. I thought the Jazz were lucky to get a first for O’Neale at all, given his slippage on the defensive end of the floor, but it made sense that it was at least a low first in return. Remember, they get the worst pick among Houston, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia.
It turns out that all of those teams have had disappointing seasons so far, too. Brooklyn just fired their head coach and hired one with tanking the Orlando Magic for three seasons on his resume, Philadelphia is missing James Harden for the next month and change, and Houston is utterly lost.
So, right now, the Jazz have two lottery picks. From Tankathon:
Terrific. Now, they can’t get Victor Wembanyama with that Royce O’Neale pick, but if the Minnesota Timberwolves keep this up... the Jazz will still have a few percentage points in that race, even if they keep winning. Beyond Wembanyama, this draft still has a lot of prizes, so any lottery picks prove valuable.
I don’t really think it’s likely. I think Minnesota will rebound to become a play-in team at least. Probably one of Philadelphia and Brooklyn will figure it out. But it’s not impossible — and it’s safe to say that things are going much better than expected in this way, too.
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