The Triple Team: Jazz lose to Suns, though Walker Kessler impressed himself with his blocks

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker, right, goes to the basket as Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler (24) defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, March 27, 2023, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 117-103 loss to the Phoenix Suns from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Second unit struggles

You can look at tonight’s plus-minuses and get a pretty darn good idea of what happened.

Jazz/Suns box score.

The Suns’ bench (even with Kevin Durant missing) is just stronger than the shorthanded Jazz’s. In particular, this Jazz team bench just is missing any scoring: Johnny Juzang was the first Jazz player off the bench, and he’s two-way player. Cam Payne, T.J. Warren, Landry Shamet, and Terrence Ross have just been long, long time NBA contributors, all of whom have some big scoring nights on their resume.

Furthermore, this Jazz bench doesn’t have much chemistry. So you end up with plays like this, where Kelly Olynyk and Damian Jones don’t have a ton of pick and roll timing, and both players are only defined threats from a couple of areas on the floor. It’s just easy to sniff out.

And honestly, if there are reasons the Jazz are losing games right now — I want it to be the backups’ fault! After all, that Talen Horton-Tucker, Ochai Agbaji, Lauri Markkanen and Walker Kessler are sticking with Chris Paul, Devin Booker, and Deandre Ayton is a good sign for the future. Those are the players that the Jazz will be keeping for the long term, while Juzang, Toscano-Anderson, Jones, Brantley, and Dunn are more likely to be short-termers.

2. Walker Kessler blocks and fouls

Walker Kessler had seven blocks tonight alongside only two fouls. A couple of points:

First, seven remains a ton of blocks. There have only been 11 seven-block games this season, Kessler has four of them. No other player has more than two. That a rookie is outright fourth in the league this year in blocks, while coming off the bench for 34 of his games this season, is really, really impressive.

Kessler even surprised himself with one of his blocks tonight:

He interrupted his press conference postgame, asking the media: “Did I goaltend the Devin Booker one? I was curious, because I can’t believe I got it.” So I pulled up the above video.

“Oh, I did, I got that! Jeez! That’s crazy!,” Kessler exclaimed.

It’s so much fun when a player is even surprising himself.

Second, two fouls is not very many fouls. He’s reduced his foul percentage as the season has gone along, including under 30 total fouls in the month of March so far.

“I definitely think — obviously it’s a learning curve for me — but I feel like the refs kind of know now that that’s what I do.”

His coach, Will Hardy, agreed.

“For sure, the reputation that he has now is helpful. Like all the best defenders in the NBA, part of it is they have a reputation. It’s not that they don’t ever fouls, but they’re known as a great defender, and so those moments where it’s a coin toss, they get the benefit of the doubt more often,” Hardy said. “I think as the season has gone on, he’s really gotten the respect of the officials and the players in terms of being one of those premier shot blockers, and I think that’s led to not being in as much foul trouble.”

Kessler is just an utter delight, and hugely impactful for winning. He’s also going to make so much money in his second contract.

3. Suns as a test of midrange

The Suns are going to be trying something recently unprecedented for an NBA team: they’re trying to win despite shooting just a metric ton of midrange shots. Here’s the top five teams in the NBA over the last 10 years in terms of the number of midrange shots they take. (Midrange shots defined as anything outside of four feet but inside the 3-point line, data compiled by Cleaning The Glass, I apologize for the complete lack of data visualization here.)

As you’d expect, midrange shots are down over time as the NBA’s 3-point revolution has taken hold. But just look at these teams... I can’t find one that had big playoff success. That 2014 Indiana team comes closest, and they lost in the Eastern Conference Finals. 2017 Spurs got swept in the WCF, the 2016 Spurs didn’t make it there, either. Even that appearance of Golden State is during the one year they were trash and won just 15 games. It turns out getting good shots is pretty important!

Of course, last year’s Phoenix team got bounced out of the second round too, by a pretty flawed Dallas team.

Kevin Durant isn’t changing the shot chart for the Suns, either — unless it’s by getting other players easier shots. He’s shooting 60% of his shots from that midrange zone, as well. Now, he makes darn near 60% of them, so maybe it just won’t matter.

With Durant, Paul, and Booker, the Suns have three of the top midrange shooters of this era and perhaps even of all time It’ll be interesting to see if the skill is enough, or if they miss some of the easy points rim shots can provide. It will also be interesting to see how top playoff defenses scheme around this tendency. Most defenses are trying to force midrange shots... can other teams implement something that will flip the script on short notice? Will they try to?

Regardless, the Suns are putting their eggs in that basket, and I’m really curious how it will all work out. Probably relatively well! But the on-court Xs and Os will be unique to watch, I think.