The Triple Team: Jazz make improbable 4th-quarter comeback against Raptors, showing their verve

Utah Jazz's Lauri Markkanen, left, and Collin Sexton celebrate near the end of the team's win over the Toronto Raptors in an NBA basketball game Friday, Feb. 10, 2023, in Toronto. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 122-116 win over the Toronto Raptors from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. The resilience of this Jazz team

This looked, 100%, like a simple Jazz loss.

The Jazz were making the kind of awful mistakes that you’d reasonably expect out of a team that had traded four of its rotation players in the last 48 hours. Between 17 turnovers and some ugly shots, the Jazz truly looked like the tanking team that most expected in the wake of the trade.

And then, well, the players that the Jazz are building around stood out. They outscored the Raptors 39-20 in the 4th quarter to steal a win against a team that decided not to lose at this trade deadline.

First, notably, was new All-Star starter Lauri Markkanen. He certainly didn’t have his most efficient night, but still contributed 23 points. More importantly, he had four assists in the 4th, along with his 3-5 shooting.

Rookie Walker Kessler had his career high, matching Markkanen with 23 points — but on 10-12 shooting.

While the Jazz’s selected keepers stood out, the Raptors spent a first-round pick on acquiring Jakob Poeltl. Maybe it was just because he was coming in on short notice after the trade, but only played 17 minutes in the game, and was relatively unimpactful. The Jazz, meanwhile, acquired a first-round pick by trading their players away — and got the win regardless.

Obviously, that doesn’t mean that the Jazz are better than the Raptors... it’s just one game. But it remains incredible how the Jazz will fight against the perception they’re out and down for the season, just as they have all game long. Maybe I’m just scarred from last season, but it’s not to be taken for granted that a team will continue to fight in the fourth quarter. This Jazz team continues to be incredibly fun to watch.

2. Ball movement impressive

Remember how I’d criticized the Jazz’s ball movement in the last few games before the trade deadline? I thought it was much, much better tonight — including on some game-defining possessions. Remember, Markkanen had no assists last game; tonight, he had five.

It’s also worth noting the contributions of Kelly Olynyk. He has really struggled since he came back from injury with the Jazz. In particular, as the Jazz have planned to emphasize Markkanen and his All-Star status, he’s just been less of a hub for the team than he was at the beginning of the season. When he doesn’t have the ball in his hands, you’re just relying on him for shooting and defense, and he’s streaky at one and not great at the other.

Tonight, though, he had eight assists in the game, all in the first three quarters, to keep the Jazz even reasonably competitive.

Also on Team Eight Assists: Talen Horton-Tucker. He’s very good when he uses his ability to attack the rim when he passes. If he shoots, it’s probably going to be an out-of-control layup, but when he passes, it’s likely to find an open teammate.

It’s worth noting that Jordan Clarkson was out tonight due to a non-COVID illness. When Clarkson is a passer, the Jazz are much better — and I hope that he continues the way he played at the beginning of the season.

3. Attacking the rim

The Jazz are not frequently a rim-attacking team. They rank 25th in the league in getting shots at the rim — and the teams in front of them are Golden State, Brooklyn, Phoenix, Miami, and Boston. Those are all teams with really, obvious significant mid range or deep shooting threats, while the Jazz have less-recognized stars in that realm.

Tonight, though, the Jazz got 44% of their shots at the rim, and shot 28-36 from there. That’s significantly more than the 30% than they usually take, or have taken for the rest of the year.

Why? Well, I think there is a significant difference between Sexton and Mike Conley. Conley has hugely significant strengths, but by the end of his career, one of them was not getting all of the way to the rim and finishing among the trees. Sexton is less adept at playmaking than Conley, but he is the team’s leader in drawing free throws. And his speed downhill, and his willingness to attack the rim, does open stuff that maybe Conley wouldn’t.

The other aspect of this is that most Walker Kessler shots are going to be rim shots — for obvious reasons. Whenever the Jazz can find him inside, he’s responsible enough with the ball that it’s usually going to be a good decision.

The Jazz won this game despite shooting 25% from three. That’s unusual for them, so it’s impressive that they were able to find the inside scorers enough to have a 120 offensive rating — and to win the game.

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