Utah Jazz’s ‘senior council members’ pave the way for comeback vs. Celtics

Two players on the team approach coach Will Hardy with the idea of giving a mothballed 1-3-1 zone scheme another try, and it plays an integral role in rallying the Jazz back from a 19-point deficit.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Kelly Olynyk (41) and Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) as the Utah Jazz host the San Antonio Spurs, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023.

Utah Jazz head coach Will Hardy revealed late Saturday night that there exists within the organization a super-secret cabal of “senior council members” who, in recent days, encouraged him to resurrect a mothballed zone scheme that wound up swinging the momentum in their eventual 118-117 victory.

Hardy would only grudgingly disclose the most nebulous details on the identities of these trusted, inner-circle voices.

“One of them wears a backwards hat a lot — he wants to be unnamed [so] that’s the only clue I’ll give you. And the other one is from Finland,” he noted, embracing the cloak-and-dagger mystique.

Despite such murky vagaries, a series of deep-dive, back-channel entreaties ultimately revealed the unnamed parties to be — cue the Scooby-Doo-style, mask-removal reveal!Kelly Olynyk and Lauri Markkanen.

“That’s the word on the street?” Olynyk asked, playing coy initially.

Eventually, the shadow society members admitted to their complicity in the plan that helped the Jazz battle back from a 19-point second-quarter deficit.

“Yeah, yeah, we definitely advocated for it,” Olynyk said.

“Yeah, we talked about it before practice, and we were happy to try it again,” added Markkanen.

To be fair, it wasn’t a plan devoid of risk, given previous failings of its implementation.

The Finnisher was admittedly hazy on the details of its prior efficacy: “I can’t remember how it went last time — probably not that well, since we got away from it.”

Hardy was quick to confirm that it went so ‘not that well’ that it was pretty quickly scrapped.

“It’s something that we worked on earlier in the year for a little bit — we weren’t quite ready to use it in a game,” Hardy said.

Olynyk and Markkanen, however, apparently felt like the time was right for the team to dust the cobwebs off of it, and Hardy “was talked into bringing it back and giving it some more love.”

As for how exactly it works … well that caused everyone to go all tight-lipped and clandestine again.

“You want us to tell you all the secrets?!” Olynyk asked, aghast.

“I’m not gonna give a scouting report — though I’m sure it was pretty obvious,” Markkanen added.

“Well, it’s a zone. Yeah, it is a zone. I’m not going to get into too many specifics as to what exactly it is, but there’s a lot of switching in it,” Hardy said.

Ultimately, a few more details were forthcoming.

Rookie center Walker Kessler divulged that the basic structure was a 1-3-1 zone (one player at the top of the arc, three spread across the next level, one guarding the rim), then acknowledged that it’s more difficult to pull off than in college, because of the potential for earning a defensive 3-seconds technical foul — of which he was assessed one.

Beyond that …

“It’s a bunch of mind games,” Kessler added. “You’re trying to predict where that guy’s going to pass it: Is he gonna throw it to the corner? Who’s in that corner? Grant Williams got hot [hitting 7 of 12 tries from 3], so we tried to rush him off the line a little bit more.”

Markkanen described the basic premise as “Chaos,” with Jazz players “flying around, messing up their rhythm, trying to make them hesitate in their decision-making, and give them a different look.” In particular, it entailed throwing a lot of double-teams at Celtics star Jayson Tatum, who finished with just 15 points on 4-for-12 shooting.

Olynyk said the basic feeling was that the team’s size — especially in the frontcourt (he is 6-foot-11, Markkanen is 7 feet, and Kessler goes 7-1) — should lend itself to an effective zone.

“We’re probably one of the tallest frontcourts and the NBA — us and Cleveland last year when they had Lauri! I think it’s good for us — I mean, it gives us size and length, and we can make things difficult for some people,” he said. “… Just trying to cover ground — we’re tall, we have big wingspans, and we can rebound better out of a zone than most teams because of our size and length. So it worked out.”

They weren’t certain they’d bust it out against the Celtics, but when their early base defense cratered, with Boston hitting 11 of its first 21 attempts from 3, well, “I don’t think we started out that well, so we went to it pretty quickly,” Markkanen conceded.

They felt much better about it this time around, apparently.

Olynyk said he approached Hardy during the team’s four days in between games last week with the suggestion that they switch a few things up, believing it would help the Jazz as a whole, and the team’s younger players specifically, suggesting they were equipped to handle bigger changes at this point.

The Canadian noted that the coach is “super open-minded” and an “outside-the-box thinker” who is receptive to recommendations and willing to give them due consideration.

“Sometimes you go to a restaurant and you see the suggestion box and you never know if those get read — but Will’s reading every one of them,” Olynyk said with a laugh.

In this case, the coach saw the merit.

It wasn’t always perfectly executed. There were snafus here and there: “It is a zone that requires a ton of communication from a lot of people. I spent most of my time, as usual, yelling at Walker to do more, but Walker understands that that comes from a place of love,” Hardy said.

Still, with the team noting that it’s a constant imperative not to give any opponent a steady dose of one look for too long, having a new option at their disposal could prove exceedingly useful down the season’s stretch run, with just a dozen games remaining on the schedule and Utah in the thick of playoff contention.

“It was something that Boston just hadn’t really seen this year a whole lot just because of the personnel they have and the way they they play and move the ball and shoot. But I think we did a pretty good job at it,” Olynyk said. “… It was a little more unorthodox, but it did what it was intended to do.

“… [it] just gives you a lot of experience that you need when you want to win and keep going in this league longer than April 9th,” he added. “… Hopefully it’s a tool we’ll have in our toolbox for when we need it.”