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The Triple Team: Shorthanded but fun Jazz team improbably fights back against Grizzlies

Memphis Grizzlies forward Santi Aldama (7) shoots against Utah Jazz center Damian Jones (15) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 117-111 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. This Jazz team continues to be insanely likable

Perhaps the Jazz read my last Triple Team, when they chose to sit Lauri Markkanen and Rudy Gay for this last game of a road trip. Or, maybe, just maybe, Markkanen did have knee soreness and Gay really was sick.

Regardless, the Jazz did not especially look like winning this game, coming into a matchup against the West’s No. 2 seed. Then, Collin Sexton went out, limiting the team to essentially one sort-of point guard: Talen Horton-Tucker. (Leandro Bolmaro, apparently, is not even in the “break glass in case of point guard emergency” cabinet.) Then, the team went down by 24 points early.

And still, they fought back. Jordan Clarkson went from cold to hot. Kelly Olynyk scored 18 in the second half alone. Ochai Agbaji showed that he could score. Walker Kessler started to dominate in drop coverage, with three blocks in the fourth quarter.

Even the new guys got into the act. Juan Toscano-Anderson and Damian Jones had played a total of zero minutes in a Jazz uniform before the night, but both got their chances, and immediately looked good. Both players worked hard on both ends of the floor.

And hey, maybe this is what NBA teams should look like. The Grizzlies had had an outlier-good shooting start to the night, and the Jazz started their game shooting 12% from three. It makes sense that the game would get closer as it went along.

But I am so scarred by last season’s Jazz teams, which constantly found ways to not fight, to take quarters off, to lose composure. Over and over again, that team underperformed its skill level, driving Jazz fans crazy.

This team does the exact opposite. There was no reason for the Jazz to keep competing there: they could have packed it in. The last game before the All-Star break, with your best player hurt, your starting PG traded away, your backup injured? Nobody would have really blamed the Jazz for getting blown out in that situation.

They tried anyway, and nearly won. Over and over again, this team will exceed your expectations.

2. Thinking about Ochai Agbaji

Ochai Agbaji is actually a pretty weird player, I think.

He’s so low usage. Since he started playing significant minutes in January, he only has a 9% usage rate. That would be second-lowest in the NBA among players who have played “qualifying” minutes, behind only P.J. Tucker.

Among his other low-usage counterparts, there’s something usually that sticks out about how they contribute to the court in ways other than scoring. For Tucker, it’s his defense. For Mitchell Robinson, its his blocks. For Kevon Looney, his rebounding and screening. And so on.

Agbaji doesn’t really have that “standout” secondary skill. He’s a good defender, but certainly not at the level of the other low-usage guys like Tucker, Robinson, Gary Payton II, Matisse Thybulle, you name it. He has a super low steal percentage and quite low block numbers. He also has one of the lowest assist rates in the league, and doesn’t get many rebounds: Clarkson, Malik Beasley, and Talen Horton-Tucker have all gotten rebounds more often this year.

In short: you can go minutes before you remember that Agbaji is on the floor.

And then he punctuates those gaps with moments like this:

Or this:

Or this:

After that, you have no choice to be impressed. Looked at another way, Agbaji is a shooting guard with a terrific stroke, strong defensive fundamentals, very good athleticism, and a team player who makes very few mistakes! It’s just a matter of being able to put an imprint on the game.

I thought Agbaji’s one steal of the game — his first in two weeks — was a neat microcosm of this. Watch how he gets this steal:

There’s a loose ball, and Agbaji’s in perfect position to get it... but he hesitates. He doesn’t really attack it until Dillon Brooks starts backing up. Once he does, he finds success in transition.

Attack that ball, Ochai. Attack the ball in general. Get rebounds, steals, blocks. Get physical. Foul sometimes. Do whatever it takes to make an impact on the floor.

3. Damian Jones impresses

The Damian Jones experience tonight was legitimately hilarious: he played eight minutes, all in the second half. By the time you had watched the first minute, it was immediately obvious how much better he is than the player who had been playing above him, Udoka Azubuike.

Frankly, I don’t think ‘Dok would seal his man like this:

This is a terrific lob finish:

This late duck in, loose-ball gathering, then quick finish is also a step above what his competition could do.

Here’s the thing: Jones is in his 7th NBA season, on his 6th NBA team. We know that Jones is approximately a replacement level player, maybe a little bit above it. Jones wasn’t someone the Jazz really prioritized getting in the Conley trade, just someone who was a throw in for the deal.

But that he was able to step in and contribute shows that the replacement level for backup centers is quite high. You don’t need to spend a first-round pick on Udoka Azubuike or Tony Bradley, or spend $10 million per season on Derrick Favors, to be your backup center. You can go out and get a Jones, or a Hassan Whiteside, or a Cody Zeller, or a gazillion other tall decentish dudes all the time.

(A potential counterpoint: what about Walker Kessler? I’d argue that Kessler’s record-setting production at Auburn meant that he was actually a starting center prospect. ‘Dok and Bradley probably underperformed expectations in college, then both had significant limitations, even on draft day. You knew exactly what you were getting from Favors by the time the Jazz signed him to his final contract.)

Also: I think it’s a good idea to play him over Azubuike, even though Jones is 27 and ‘Dok is 23, simply because Jones has one more year on his deal (a player option), while Azubuike doesn’t.

Regardless, a great Jazz debut for Jones — who I’m also pre-disposed to liking because his last Instagram post was of him on a bunch of hikes around Utah’s national parks this offseason.