With Mike Conley a late scratch, Utah Jazz’s other point guards are a mixed bag

Nickeil Alexander-Walker got the start while Collin Sexton and Talen Horton-Tucker returned to action, and while they had some good moments, the team’s 15 assists vs. 24 turnovers was cause for concern.

Utah Jazz guard Collin Sexton (2) goes to the basket as Orlando Magic center Bol Bol, left, defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 13, 2023, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

One of the first things Utah Jazz coach Will Hardy said in Friday night’s postgame news conference entailed disappointment about the team’s miscues while also getting in a zinger about their much-maligned “highlighter” jerseys.

“Turnovers [are] clearly a big story of this game. We had 24 [overall] and we had 11 in the fourth quarter, which is alarming considering the jerseys we were wearing tonight,” Hardy quipped. “I feel like we should know which guys are on our team and which guys aren’t when we wear the yellow.”

Honestly, the Magic getting two dozen points off of those two dozen Jazz turnovers is the primary reason why the game was close at all, why the Jazz blew a 12-point fourth-quarter lead before rallying back in the final minute for a 112-108 victory over Orlando at Vivint Arena.

Irksome as all those miscues were, they perhaps were not wholly unpredictable.

About an hour and a half before tipoff, the Jazz announced that veteran point guard Mike Conley would be sitting out to rest on the opening end of a back-to-back. As for the other point guards on the team, Nickeil Alexander-Walker has been in and out of the rotation of late, while Collin Sexton was making his return after missing four games rehabbing a balky hamstring, and Talen Horton-Tucker was back in action following a two-game absence on account of a right ankle sprain (though he’d been a DNP-CD in five of seven games before that).

Given the confluence of those circumstances, you could have argued that a night such as this was coming.

And yet …

Those three were not inherently to blame for the Jazz’s turnover woes. True, Alexander-Walker and Sexton had two apiece, and Horton-Tucker had one. But Jordan Clarkson, thrust into more of a play-making role with Conley shelved, had two assists against seven turnovers. And Lauri Markkanen, the focal point of the team’s offense, coughed it up five times himself.

Still, each of the point guards acknowledged some difficulty in finding a consistent rhythm on this occasion.

Sexton was perhaps the most effective, frequently shifting into a higher gear to beat defenders off the dribble and get into the paint, en route to 18 points on 7-for-12 shooting.

“It felt good being back out there. It’s been a minute, so I definitely had to pretty much just settle in,” he said. “Make sure I wasn’t too high, make sure I wasn’t too low, just stay even-keeled the entire game.”

Including after he missed two potentially game-sealing free throws with 15.4 seconds to go.

On the flip side, he did at least bury a contested, go-ahead jumper with just under a minute left.

“I knew I was gonna shoot that one!” he conceded with a big smile. “I was like, ‘My time! I’m gonna knock it down.’ I was ready.”

Alexander-Walker, meanwhile, had just one basket all night, on four attempts. He had zero assists. He committed four fouls in 15 minutes and 17 seconds.

And he acknowledged that, without Conley, things were not particularly seamless on Friday.

“It’s just necessary to simplify the offense a little more, because Mike can get guys organized into different looks you might want,” Alexander-Walker said. “But I think everyone remained themselves. I tried to do my best at getting the offense set early and getting us in a good rhythm where we can pass, cut, drive, kick, and so forth.”

As for Horton-Tucker, he played just under 16 minutes and had a decent outing — seven points of 3-for-6 shooting (1 of 2 from deep), plus two rebounds and two assists.

Afterward, he explained that he’s feeling good, but is at the point where he’s “still getting better by the day.” He added that, between the stretch of games he did not play, on account of either Hardy sitting him or the ankle shelving him, he is now, upon his return to action, once again, “trying to figure it out … and slowly work myself back into the game.”

“Trying to figure it out” seems applicable to the Jazz as a whole against the Magic, considering that they managed just 15 assists on 36 baskets — a meager figure in its own right, but especially so when juxtaposed against all those turnovers.

The coach mentioned afterward that a consistent theme had revealed itself in many of those miscues.

“Passing late was the biggest issue,” Hardy said. “Orlando’s a team that really swarms the paint, they do a great job of shifting into the gaps, and if you try to split that defender that’s in the gap over and over again and then make a late pass out to the perimeter, you put yourself at the mercy of really good athletes.

“The one we saw at the end, where [Paolo] Banchero — it looked like a football pick-six play where he just took off, because Lauri kind of hesitated in the post and then threw an overhead pass cross-court,” he added. “I just don’t think we did a good enough job passing the ball early in the possession versus their shifts, and it got us in some tough spots where you get in the middle with Orlando’s length. They play so hard on the defensive end, I thought we put ourselves in a bad spot by not making the early pass vs. their shifts.”

They’ll get a chance to right those wrongs on Saturday against the 76ers.

And the expectation is that Conley will suit up and help things along.