Utah Jazz’s lineup experimentation pays off late in win vs. Suns

Rookie coach Will Hardy willingly sacrificed some size and rebounding late vs. Phoenix in order to maximize defensive switchability vs. Devin Booker and to utilize Malik Beasley’s floor-spacing.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz head coach Will Hardy chats with referee Dannica Mosher (89), in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Phoenix Suns, at Vivint Arena, on Friday, Nov. 18, 2022.

It seemed counterintuitive.

Seven of the Phoenix Suns’ 12 offensive rebounds in Friday night’s game against the Utah Jazz came in the fourth quarter, enabling them to keep the game close down the stretch on account of all the extra shot opportunities …

And yet Jazz coach Will Hardy remained steadfast in keeping a small-ball lineup out there, in what would eventually wind up as a 134-133 Utah victory which snapped the team’s three-game losing streak.

For a long stretch of the fourth, Hardy kept starting big man Kelly Olynyk on the bench, opting to roll with the other four starters (Lauri Markkanen, Jarred Vanderbilt, Jordan Clarkson, and Mike Conley) plus the 6-foot-4 Malik Beasley. Only when Vanderbilt fouled out with 1 minute, 1 second to go did the coach put Olynyk back in.

At no point during that pivotal stretch did 7-footer and legit center Walker Kessler touch the court, even as Deandre Ayton kept the Suns alive by working the boards.

So … what was the method to Hardy’s madness? Two factors were in play.

Regarding Kessler’s absence: “I thought the small lineup was our best chance to win the game. I thought Devin Booker — who’s an unbelievable player — he really had his way against the drop tonight. And I didn’t think, down the stretch, I wanted to show him any more drop,” Hardy said. “Walker does so many things well for our team, but right now, switching is not something that he’s doing a lot of. So I just felt like down the stretch, the small lineup was going to be our best opportunity.”

Indeed, Booker wound up with 49 points, but missed three big shots in the final minutes.

As for Beasley’s presence: “Malik was having a very good night. His spacing, his ability to get shots off in tight windows against a long, athletic defensive team like that, I thought was something that we were going to need down the stretch,” Hardy added. “I felt like we were going to be in our execution part of the game, we were going to have the ball with Mike and J.C. and Lauri, and I thought that Malik spacing [the floor] was going to be critical for us. And he he did a wonderful job all night, hit a lot of big shots.”

There’s no doubt about that last part.

Beasley had a prolific game off the bench, racking up 27 points by burying 10 of 17 shots overall, and 7 of 13 from deep. He added three rebounds, plus one assist, blocked shot, and steal apiece.

Totaling one single assist is not what he wants, but it at least was a timely one, as he spotted Markkanen sealing the smaller Booker in the post, and fed him for what would become a running hook-and-one.

Nevertheless, it was his shooting that impressed everyone — well, everyone but himself, apparently.

“It’s the same shots [as early in the season]. The ball came to me a little bit more tonight. But as I’ve been telling everybody, I’ve been putting in the same work — no matter if I’m off or not,” Beasley said. “At the beginning of the season, those shots weren’t going down, and now they’re going down. So it all evens out. And I just gotta continue to keep working.”

His teammates weren’t having it, though.

As Beasley was speaking in the locker room postgame, Nickeil Alexander-Walker interrupted the interview to interject a simple theme.

“That boy can shoot! That boy can shoot!” Alexander-Walker exclaimed loudly, his head popping up over Beasley’s shoulder. “If you’re listening to this, that … boy … can … shoot!”

Back to the broader point, though — Hardy remains unafraid to experiment with different groups in an effort to find ones that fit the moment.

Asked before the game if Simone Fontecchio was the default option to take over the rotation minutes of injured reserve forward Rudy Gay, Hardy said that while the team trusted the Italian implicitly, he preferred to keep his options open on a game-by-game basis.

As this game unfolded, Hardy did use Fontecchio for a more limited amount of time (9:32) than in Tuesday’s loss to the Knicks (where he played 16:47). Still, he was deployed in some different looks.

At the start of the fourth quarter, for example, Fontecchio was on the court alongside Kessler, Olynyk, Beasley, and Talen Horton-Tucker — the first such deployment of that particular five-man unit this season.

Phoenix coach Monty Williams spoke pregame about how many options Hardy has at his disposal this season given the composition of the roster.

“They’re a deep team,” he said. “You would imagine trading [Donovan] Mitchell and [Rudy] Gobert and [Bojan] Bogdanovic that you’d lose your whole team. But they still have Conley and Clarkson, and they brought in guys who can hoop.”

Still, it’s a fair bet that those guys will be deployed somewhat differently Saturday night in Portland than they were Friday night against Phoenix.

Beasley, for instance, despite a strong run of play lately, may not match the 31:16 he played vs. the Suns. He may not be in the final five.

On this occasion, though, he was. After being subbed out at the 5:33 mark, so Hardy could get a rested (and incredibly efficient) Markkanen back in the game, the Florida State product’s night could have been over. But with 3:18 remaining, Hardy sent him back in for Olynyk.

Asked if it was meaningful to have his coach’s trust to close out such a close game, he cracked a joke about those two-plus minutes he was on the bench.

“I wanted to stay in the whole time! Yeah, coach!” Beasley said before bursting into laughter. “No, he told me I needed a rest because I went 16 minutes straight in the first half, [and he didn’t want] another 15 minutes straight in the second half. But I told him, ‘You’re good — whatever you need to do, coach.’”

It’s pretty apparent at this point that whatever the coach thinks he needs, he’s willing to give it a try.