The Triple Team: Kyrie Irving scored 48 against Jazz as Nets win, plus a note on Lauri Markkanen’s leadership

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving (11) goes in for a dunk, as Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler (24) gets tangled up in the net, in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Brooklyn Nets at Vivint Arena, on Friday, Jan. 20, 2023.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 117-106 loss to the Brooklyn Nets from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Defending Kyrie — and failing

Kyrie Irving had 48 points tonight on 18-29 shots — and was also largely responsible for the Nets late-game that run that turned a 50/50 game into a Jazz loss.

Why? Other than that he’s a good player, of course.

First, for a lot of the game, Irving was being defended by Mike Conley. Conley’s a very smart defender, but he’s just not a lengthy one in any sort of way that’s going to bother Irving if he’s on a heater. This is a shot that the Jazz are actually pretty happy with, a midranger, but it’s not too different than an open one given that Conley can’t get affect either the line of sight or the shot release.

(As a side note, remember my earlier rant against play-by-play shot distance data? That shot was recorded as a 15-footer. That’s clearly much further away than 15 feet.)

Second, the Jazz didn’t really defend many screen plays well, no matter what they did. Here, for example, Sexton goes under, giving Irving his 37th-39th points.

Or here, I think they want to switch or trap? But Irving waits long enough to cause confusion, and just takes the deep three anyway without a contest.

Finally, this is the one Will Hardy was most visibly livid about: Irving comes off a screen and gets a three because Kessler isn’t up high enough on the screen to make any sort of impact.

After calling timeout here, as Kessler walked off the floor, Hardy was telling him to be up, but Kessler didn’t go up. At least, not enough.

“If Walker is going to stay in the game late, which is something that obviously we’re trying to work on, he’s got to be up higher in pick and roll at the end of the game,” Hardy said.

“I definitely should have been up higher. I was just more concerned with my man scoring, but that’s not that’s not what I need to need to be.” Kessler said postgame.

To be sure, this was an example of a player showing his excellence. But the playoffs has a lot of players like Kyrie Irving. If you can’t bother him more than the Jazz did, there will be games like this one where it just looks a bit too easy.

2. Jazz’s offense forced into isos

Credit the Nets’ scouting and effort tonight: I thought they had perhaps the best game-plan I’ve seen yet for defending the Jazz’s 4th-ranked offense.

The Nets were highly, highly aggressive on Lauri Markkanen: they bumped him in the post, pushed him as he screened, and sent two players towards him nearly any time he drove. Markkanen still had a decent game: 22 points on 8-16 shooting, but it wasn’t the night we’ve seen him have recently.

In one late game possession, Markkanen was simply posting up Nic Claxton (who had an excellent game, by the way: his +29 in 38 minutes means that the Nets were a -16 without him.) And really, Markkanen was just trying to go through Claxton — Hardy said he would have preferred Markkanen to use his speed more often.

The Nets also switched a lot, and I thought the Jazz tried to take advantage of that in non-ideal ways. So this is a play that’s usually really hard for teams to defend: Markkanen and Malik Beasley come up to screen for Jordan Clarkson, and Clarkson has three options: pass it to Beasley popping out for a three, pass it to Markkanen rolling to the rim, or try to drive himself.

But because the Nets switched Claxton out to Beasley, that means Markkanen has Royce O’Neale beaten to the rim. Clarkson should probably lob it to Markkanen here, but instead he tries to beat Joe Harris one-on-one. Royce ends up getting the steal as he just drives into traffic.

(Note too that Ben Simmons feels relatively confident just leaving Kessler in order to be able to help out if need be.)

Whenever teams switch, the first thought is “attack the mismatch.” But there are so many ways of doing that that aren’t isolation time — the Jazz fell into that too often.

3. On being a vocal leader

My opinion on basketball player leadership is that it’s essentially overrated as a characteristic. Like: have you guys read The Jordan Rules, by Sam Smith? It details Michael Jordan’s Bulls during the championship 1990-91 season. From the Amazon blurb:

“The Jordan Rules covers everything from his stormy relationships with his coaches and teammates and power struggles with management—including verbal attacks on general manager Jerry Krause and tantrums against coach Phil Jackson—to Jordan’s obsessions with becoming the leading scorer, and his refusal to pass the ball in the crucial minutes of big games.”

All of that is bad leadership! But the Bulls won the championship anyway, largely because Jordan played better basketball than anyone else ever had.

So today, when Hardy was asked about vocal leaders on the Jazz, he gave two answers: Mike Conley and Rudy Gay. Hardy went on to say that Markkanen is more of a “lead by example” guy. Personally, I’m totally okay with that. Markkanen isn’t a jerk, but isn’t a rah-rah leader at age 25. Cool.

But there was an interesting moment in the locker room postgame.

Walker Kessler had a pretty bad game tonight, to be honest. He was dominated by Claxton, didn’t hedge high enough in defense, and scored only two points and collected only six rebounds against the Nets’ switches. It was a stylistic test, one of his first of the year, and Kessler really, really struggled.

He was pretty upset about that in the locker room. For a long time after he was dressed, Kessler just sat in his chair, drinking a hydration drink, looking straight ahead, thinking.

Late in the night, Markkanen came over to Kessler’s chair. I didn’t catch all of the conversation, but I did hear the end: Markkanen was talking to the rookie about his game, and then telling him that it’d be alright — that he’d have the chance to move on to the next one come Monday.

These kinds of experiences are good for Kessler: he’ll need them in order to be a weapon against all different kinds of game plans. But so too is the knowledge that his teammates support him and his efforts to get better — and the player who most helped Kessler out tonight was Markkanen.