The Triple Team: Lauri Markkanen’s huge performance and game-winning shot fires Jazz past Suns

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) hits a shot with seconds on the shot clock as Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1), in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Phoenix Suns, at Vivint Arena, on Friday, Nov. 18, 2022.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 134-133 win over the Phoenix Suns from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Lauri Markkanen is a star

Lauri Markkanen had 38 points on just a casual 15-18 shooting from the field, 2-3 from three, and 6-8 from the free-throw line. That’s extremely efficient! And, as it turned out, absolutely crucial that he was exactly that good — if he were any less able, the Jazz would be going to Portland tonight with a loss.

Here’s the highlight video:

It’s just an incredible amount of variety in his game: a dribble drive and-one is followed by a spot up three is followed by a backdoor cut is followed by a paint flash is followed by a post-up and-one is followed by a backwards pirouette is followed by a put-back tip and-one, all before we even get to halftime. No two baskets are the same.

We usually talk about stars “getting to their spots” — the spaces on the floor where they’ve practiced the most and feel most confident about their ability to score. Markkanen’s spot is anywhere within 30 feet of the basket, which makes him very tough to guard.

That pirouette at the 1:00 mark in the video above is a good example: the Suns are so worried about Markkanen getting free for a three at the top of the arc around a Jordan Clarkson screen, that he can just take one step towards that, then cut to the middle. It’s impressive.

But then there’s the eventual game-winner, which is just ridiculous. Truly a Kevin Durant/Dirk Nowitzki kind of shot, where Markkanen’s release point is just too high for even good defense from Devin Booker to deal with.

How good can Markkanen be? In the end, the only player with more points per game at a higher efficiency is Steph Curry. That’s pretty good company!

Obviously, we’ll see if he can continue this. I think he’ll probably start missing a few more layups — go down to 75% rather than 85%, because nobody shoots 85% on at-rim shots — but it’s possible he can compensate with more threes.

2. Forcing defenses to make mistakes

The Suns made a ton of switching mistakes in this game. Watch that Markkanen video above for at least a couple of examples.

But, honestly, the Jazz give you a ton of opportunities to make mistakes, by asking questions over and over again. It’s kind of like a quick flash card test: if you ask someone easy times-table kind of questions 10 times in 10 seconds, they might make a mistake just through the speed of the whole thing.

So, for example, the Jazz ran this play twice in the first quarter.

Watch how the Suns kind of freak out and just double team Clarkson twice, even though that’s not super smart. But it’s a tricky play to defend, because the Jazz bunch up three players and then sprout out in different directions. For a defense, communicating is difficult in this situation because you’re communicating with three players, not just two — so if someone yells “switch”, it’s not exactly clear who’s switching for what.

Furthermore, teams probably put less defensive focus on off-ball screen scouting than on-ball screen scouting, so there aren’t necessarily known hard-and-fast rules for how to deal with situations like the above.

That’s some of the brilliance of this offense: the Jazz are running so much stuff off the ball, and with a lot of space available in the paint and outside of it. It results in, say, scoring 134 points on the third best defense in the NBA.

3. Malik Beasley’s threes

So Malik Beasley scored 27 points tonight, including 7-13 shooting from 3-point range.

He’s now shooting 9.9 threes per 36 minutes, making 43% of them. Only two players in the NBA are shooting better than that on that volume: Steph Curry (hey, him again), and the very awesome Bones Hyland, who has somehow started the season shooting 50% from three.

But this is basically who Malik Beasley is! Since his third season, he’s been a tough as nails shooter — he actually took two more threes per 36 minutes in Minnesota last year. He’s averaged 39.1% from three over those five seasons, so 43% isn’t too crazy — he’ll probably fall some, but not off a cliff.

My favorite part about Beasley is just how quick his trigger is, and how confident he is to shoot when he has a defender within touching distance, but who’s not much of a threat to bother his shot. This kind of closeout is super common, with one hand up, and it can dissuade most shooters. Not Malik.

My second favorite part about Beasley is how far away he’s accurate from. He’s shooting 42% on threes that are at least 25 feet out, after shooting 36% (still very good!) on those threes last year. That forces the defense to either step out to defend him further away, or to just give up points because they’re not in good defensive position given his skillset.

He’s a fun player, the kind every team could use more of. In this NBA economy, I think he’s probably worth his $15 million contract.

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