The Triple Team: Lauri Markkanen is finding ways to create scoring chances for himself — and finish them efficiently

Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving, front, drives to the basket past Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) and Talen Horton-Tucker (0) in the first half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, March 7, 2023, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 120-116 loss to the Dallas Mavericks from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Running out of superlatives for Lauri Markkanen

The Jazz had 2 players that have contributed more than one Win Share this season play tonight: Lauri Markkanen and Kelly Olynyk. Naturally, they almost won. It wasn’t because of Olynyk.

It’s because Lauri Markkanen, even without a high level point guard to feed him the ball, still is finding ways to get it done on the offensive end. Even when he’s basically the only guy on the opposing team’s scouting report, he’s scoring efficiently anyway. I’ve probably led 20 Triple Teams off with Lauri Markkanen this season, but it never really gets tiring talking about what this guy has found this season.

The Jazz’s starters had 78 points in 85 possessions. Markkanen had 33 points in 25 possessions, for 1.32 points per possession. Everyone else in the starting group had 45 points in 60 possessions, for 0.75 points per possession. Basically, if the Finnisher was Finnishing a play, the Jazz were elite; if anyone else was, they’re the 9-win Charlotte Bobcats but worse.

That being said, he’s not just finishing these plays, he’s creating them, too.

For some of the night, the Mavs switched screens on defense. This was dumb, because then Markkanen could just shoot over the top of Kyrie Irving.

Heck, even if it’s not a big mismatch, Markkanen could bully him:

But if they didn’t switch, then Markkanen could lose his bigger defender on the screen — even one by a small, like Kris Dunn (who I continue to love, as this is a terrific guard screen):

Or he can get the ball in transition, and outrun the defense while dribbling, and do a little give-and-go with Talen Horton-Tucker for a highlight reel jam:

Or even if the defense just leaves one of his teammates to help, Markkanen can still spin and finish. (The Dallas commentary crew’s “Wow!” here is great.)

It’s just a joy.

As a side note, it’s no longer about this just being a good offensive situation for Markkanen to shine. Will Hardy’s doing really well to set him up with a variety of looks, but his teammates aren’t making passes you or I couldn’t make. It’s really just about Markkanen being an unstoppable 7-footer at this point, a guy who’s essentially picked up the Dirk Nowitzki at his prime skillset.

What a terrific building block for the future.

2. Agbaji, building on aggression

Ochai Agbaji had a rough game tonight, going just 2-11 from the field. I’m 0% worried about the 1-6 from deep — I know he’s a good 3-point shooter. Inside, too, he missed some bunnies. So it goes.

But I liked how much he tried to force the issue rather than just being complacent. I think we’ve seen him be a little contact shy at times, so I love this with all my heart.

This, however, is less good:

How do you have one without the other? Essentially, situational awareness. In transition, being a bulldog pays off nearly all the time — it’s nearly impossible to legally defend in the NBA while backpedaling without help.

In halfcourt? You have to get that flyby, and expect someone to help. You may well be able to beat that help guy, but you have to be aware that he’s likely coming. That means more of a probe than a full-on attack — in this case, a shifty move or finding Horton-Tucker in the corner would have been the right option.

Still, this is nitpicky. It’s been only two months he’s in the rotation, and for him to have obviously changed mentalities since then in such a short amount of time is pretty impressive and a good sign for his future.

3. Dallas, and team building

Uh, the Dallas Mavericks might not be very good.

They’re 5-6 since the Irving trade — they’ve had a relatively tough schedule, but lost some games you probably would expect a true contender to win. Of course, only winning in the final seconds tonight against the very shorthanded Jazz is a pretty awful sign, especially given that they won the 3-point luck game by a significant amount, too.

In the end, I’m just selling a team that is so

A) shallow

and B) oriented to only one end of the floor.

Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving are both incredibly hard to guard. But to a very real extent, playoff defenses are going to be able to key in on those guys. That’s especially when you consider that for about 20 minutes per night, only one of them is going to be on the floor. (The Luka minutes are much harder to gameplan for than the Kyrie minutes, though — Irving can be goaded into some tough shots.)

More importantly, they let this Jazz team score on them. Are they really going to be able to stop the Nuggets, or the Kings, or the Grizzlies? They stopped the Suns last year — now they have Kevin Durant to fix that problem, so good luck with that.

It’s also just a shortsighted trade, I thought, given Irving’s impending free agency and the very real likelihood he leaves Dallas in the summer. Trading assets and going all in on a two-star core to figure it out over two months just seems so unwise to me.

Ah well — it’s not the team I cover. But after such a promising playoff run last year, losing Jalen Brunson and following it up with these moves could easily turn an upward-trending future into a “what if” disappointment in record time.

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