The Triple Team: Jazz beat Celtics in thrilling contest — on the zone defense, Ochai Agbaji’s development, and more

Utah Jazz guard Ochai Agbaji (30) shoots as Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown (7) defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, March 18, 2023, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 118-117 win over the Boston Celtics from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. A zone changed this game, I thought.

The Jazz were down 19 against the Celtics midway through the second quarter, and Will Hardy pretty reluctantly called timeout. His team’s standard defense wasn’t getting any stops — and while some of that was just because the Celtics were making every three — something needed to be changed up.

Enter in a zone defense. Kelly Olynyk and Lauri Markkanen went to Hardy this week and wondered if the team should try it again, after experimenting with it a little bit early in the season. They practiced it for a couple of days this week, and then when Plan A didn’t work (allowing 1.21 points per possession, per Synergy Sports), they had a Plan B available. Plan B allowed 1 point per possession, allowing the Jazz to get back into things.

It’s kind of wild; and I couldn’t really sort out what the scheme was during live game play. Walker Kessler told me after the game that it’s a 1-3-1 zone that allows plenty of room for switching, super aggressive help, and playing the passing lanes.

So here’s the basic setup:

A 1-3-1 zone setup.

You’ve got Ochai Agbaji playing at the top point, Walker Kessler at the rim, and the other three guys as the “3″ part of the zone. I think Agbaji’s job is to hound whoever has the ball at anywhere on the top of the arc, he’s headed that way now.

Meanwhile, the guy on the strong side wing (in this case, Simone Fontecchio) has to either hound the ball or play the passing lane to the corner, depending on who has the ball and who’s in that corner. Olynyk’s the wing guy on the weak side, guarding two players at once. Markkanen’s the first line of defense in the middle: see here.

It’s Kessler who has the hardest job, probably: he has to guard centers in the middle and/or sprint to either corner to closeout on shooters and/or help on rim protection. Like he does on this play:

The thing is, though, they pulled it off. It wasn’t perfect, but the Jazz were flying around out there. They caused some significant problems, and even rebounded the ball extremely well — one of the hardest parts of playing a zone. I was pretty impressed.

Is it going to be a go-to defense? I think the Celtics had a unique lack of depth tonight, as they were really shorthanded. It’s going to be harder against deeper teams, like the Kings on Monday. But it still was really fun, and can be a tool in the toolbox in exactly these situations — and it got them a win tonight.

2. Will Hardy on Ochai Agbaji

Ochai Agbaji had a big night tonight: 16 points on 6-11 shooting, including one of the biggest shots of the night.

That’s aggressive: early in the shot clock, but just punishing the defense for giving him space. I love it!

Will Hardy was asked about Ochai postgame, and I thought his answer was really interesting:

“One of Ochai’s greatest strengths is that he is a wonderful kid. And one of those biggest weaknesses sometimes is that he’s a wonderful kid,” he said.

Then he was asked about what he meant by that.

“The strength part of that is that he’s incredibly coachable. He’s very caring. He’s very conscientious about everything that he’s doing. Sometimes that’s a weakness, because he won’t quite just let it rip. He won’t push the envelope, he’s not gonna test the boundaries always. Sometimes he plays safe.

“Which I totally understand. Like when you start the season, you’re not in the rotation, you go to the G League, you’re trying to earn trust and credibility with the staff and your teammates. Like, you’re just trying to sort of execute and like do your checklist of things every time you go in.

“Now we’re at a stage of Ochai in his development and where he is in terms of his role on our team where you have to go for it some. And that means you’re gonna look crazy at times, and you’re gonna have some failure. I’ve been really proud of the threes that he’s hunted. Like for him to shoot that three off that handoff in that moment in the game, that was the biggest moment for me. Understanding the fact that he took that shot, much less made the shot — that he took that shot is a huge part of growth because I don’t think a month ago he even looks at the basket in that situation.”

As we’ve talked about, now he needs to develop that with other parts of his game. He had three assists tonight, only one rebound in his 36 minutes per night — he probably should be attacking the glass a bit more. But hitting a big shot at a big moment in the game is huge for him, and was big for the Jazz, too.

3. Unsung Kelly Olynyk

Kelly Olynyk had a team-high +18 plus-minus tonight, along with 13 points, 13 rebounds, and six assists. That’s pretty good!

This is such a cliche, but he is just a pretty darn smart basketball player — a connector on both ends of the floor. You can have him dribble the ball up the floor and have him be the point man for this kind of play, knowing he’s going to be able to make this pass on time and on target, regardless, of where Markkanen goes.

You can give him the ball up top after a switch or in a transition situation and have him go to work on a smaller defender.

Of course, you can also have him bring bigger defenders out to the perimeter thanks to his ability to shoot threes. He didn’t make one tonight, but he’s shooting 38% on the season from deep.

And he’s going to try really hard, too. You all know about the charges drawn and general grift, but this is just him out-sprinting everyone else on the floor to get a rebound.

I think there are times when he’s been poor this year, but statistically, he’s probably been the Jazz’s fourth best player this year. I still don’t love trading Bojan Bogdanovic for him — Bogdanovic is the much, much better player with higher value in the league — but he’s helped the Jazz impress this season.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.