The Triple Team: Utah Jazz pull out yet another surprising win against the Blazers to regain West’s top spot

The Jazz survived Mike Conley’s injury to win in Portland.

Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson reacts after scoring to give the team the lead against the Portland Trail Blazers during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 118-113 win over the Portland Trail Blazers from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. It’s just not supposed to happen like this

You’re not supposed to be able to travel to a road back-to-back and beat the No. 1 team in your conference like that.

Not with your starting point guard injured, and not with a 21-year-old guard who has famously struggled with decision making in his career. Not with your starting two-guard having a bad night early in the game. Not with your best player not making a single field goal attempt in the fourth quarter. Not with the home crowd roaring, not with call challenges going against you, not with momentum fully against your tired legs.

And the Jazz did it.

In order to do something like that, you probably have to be both a little bit lucky and good.

They were lucky. Minutes after Mike Conley went down, Damian Lillard asked to leave the game with calf tightness. The hot-shooting Blazers, shooting 39% from deep this season, shot just 31% against Utah. There were some goofy unforced turnovers from the Blazers, to be sure.

But the Jazz were good, too. In this point, I want to highlight Clarkson up here. He was having a terrible game, shooting just 3-13 from the field and adding four turnovers. So naturally, in the fourth quarter, he single-handedly proved hot-hand theory wrong by just taking and making five of his six shots, good for 15 points. It was as simple as forcing a switch, and Clarkson choosing to cook.

Clarkson was also having a pretty poor defensive game, and then came through with the biggest stop of the game.

It’s remarkable, how the Jazz have been able to pull off the unexpected over and over again. It’s the exact opposite of last year’s team, which pouted its way to innumerable losses they shouldn’t have gotten. This year, they’re getting wins they shouldn’t get, but somehow do.

What a fun team.

2. Kelly Olynyk’s defense

I have two separate lines in my Triple Team notes tonight: “Olynyk’s defense ☹️” and “Olynyk’s defense!!!” That gives you an idea of the evolution of his game: pretty iffy and flat-footed at first, then pretty exceptional in the second half. Yes, the Blazers scored more points in the second half, but it was primarily because they missed some threes in the first half that they made in the second. The Jazz’s halfcourt defense improved over the course of the game, I felt.

Jusuf Nurkic catches this ball pretty far away from the basket, but he’s able to just bully Olynyk in the first quarter for a very easy layup.

But in the fourth quarter, Olynyk takes the same move and just flops to get the offensive foul. I don’t love the charge overall... but as the rules stand now, this is good defense!

For a center, even more important than post defense is rim protection. Here, Olynyk’s just kind of defending in space, a little bit in no-man’s land. In the end, he doesn’t make much of an impact on the play.

And here, he does brilliant, stopping Lillard one-on-one despite plenty of space.

In particular, he’s playing much more drop defense than I figured the Jazz would prefer to run, but when he plays well, he’s shifty enough and forces enough turnovers to make it worth it. Only Talen Horton-Tucker gets more steals per minute than Olynyk.

Honestly, Olynyk deserves a lot of credit for the Jazz’s surprising early start to the season. The big worry coming into the season for the Jazz was whether or not they’d be able to defend, but Olynyk has been as key as anyone in their ability to be the 14th best defense in the league.

3. The Jazz without Conley

Here’s video of Mike Conley’s non-contact knee injury, for those who missed it and want to play doctor:

And here’s the initial word on the injury, from our Eric Walden on the scene in Portland:

Initial on-court ligament tests being good is an extremely good sign: it essentially rules out the ligament tears that would rule Conley out for the rest of the season or something like that.

But the “walking with a severe limp” part is obviously a worrying sign. On the other hand, Conley later told staff that the limp reporters saw was largely because he had been icing the knee before talking to media, and it warmed up later, reducing or eliminating that limp as he traveled to the team plane en route to L.A.

It’s not exactly clear, in other words, how severe the injury is, and an MRI will provide more detail. I would still say that it’s probably unlikely to see Conley on the court in less than two days’ time against the Clippers, but stranger things have happened.

Regardless, it’s worth thinking about: How would the Jazz deal with an extended Conley absence?

Interestingly, Will Hardy chose to end the game with Horton-Tucker over Collin Sexton at point guard, which I think is a big indication on who Hardy prefers at the spot. Honestly, THT has really improved his decision making in the course of just a month, while Sexton looks a little bit wild overall.

On the other hand, Sexton will be extremely disappointed if he’s not named as the starter in the wake of Conley’s injury. It was his belief at the beginning of the season that he’d be starting this year, and that he’s not is already kind of gnawing at him. Sexton also played well and started in Conley’s previous absence. Starting Sexton might be the good vibes move, and the Jazz have gotten a lot of mileage out of good vibes this year.

The Jazz’s offense has been much worse with Conley off the court this season, 4.5 points per 100 possessions worse. The defense has been better, though, in large part thanks to Walker Kessler’s minutes off the bench. We’ll see how the Jazz do for 48 minutes without him.

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