Utah Jazz wrap their season with one last weird game: ‘We’re nothing if not exciting’

Short-handed roster can’t quite muster another upset of the postseason-bound Lakers, but another unexpectedly competitive game in the season finale proves emblematic of a crazy, encouraging year.

Los Angeles • Considering pretty much the entirety of the 2022-23 season was a bit oddball, it was fitting in a way that Game No. 82 was no different.

A roster of mismatched pieces and mostly deep-bench guys once again proved to be determined and competitive, hanging in there for the bulk of Sunday’s matchup with the Lakers, a team that needed a win to clinch the seventh seed in the Western Conference.

Kris Dunn, plucked from the G League and signed o a 10-day contract to serve as a depth piece for an injury-decimated backcourt, came just two assists shy of the franchise’s first regular-season triple-double since 2008.

And universally-liked, mild-mannered Ochai Agbaji was ejected in the fourth quarter for yelling at a referee about a no-call, then delivering the ball back to the official with a little extra oomph.

“He decided to wait until the 82nd game to get a bad-boy image,” head coach Will Hardy quipped afterward. “He’s the nicest kid on the team besides Walker [Kessler], and then he gets thrown out in the last game of the year. Just add it to the list of wacky things that have happened to the team this season.

“If you had told me tonight that Ochai was gonna get kicked out, I would have said there was no chance in hell that would happen,” Hardy added, smiling. “But we’re nothing if not exciting.”

True enough.

This Utah Jazz team was way more exciting than a group that finished 37-45 on the season had any right to be.

It’s been a tumultuous stretch for the team — a longtime coach stepping down, a consistent playoff qualifier dismantled, an unconventional roster assembled in such a fashion as to raise eyebrows and lower expectations, a shockingly hot start, another roster evisceration at the trade deadline, and improbable-but-legitimate postseason dreams ultimately sacrificed at the altar of lottery odds by means of late-season “injury management.”

And yet, the team seemingly played a million close games, players remained upbeat in the locker room throughout the season, and even if no one else believed

“I mean, obviously, it was a little bit of a roller coaster. But it was a good time, it was fun,” said Kelly Olynyk. “We saw a lot of potential in our group — a lot to build on and build towards. It’s definitely looking promising.”

There were moments of promise in the 128-117 loss at Crypto.com Arena, in spite of Utah sitting out key starters and rotation pieces such as Lauri Markkanen, Jordan Clarkson, Walker Kessler, Collin Sexton, and Talen Horton-Tucker, plus reserve forward Rudy Gay.

Olynyk got the ball rolling early, hitting a couple of 3s and scoring eight points in the opening quarter, setting the tone while on his way to racking up 23 points on 9-for-13 shooting. Simone Fontecchio had one of his best games of the season, nailing 4 of 11 tries from 3-point range (the rest of the team was a combined 6 for 24) en route to 20 points and nine rebounds. And Dunn kept the Jazz lingering within striking distance late, finishing with 26 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists.

He apparently was not stat-watching, and said he had no idea how close he was to a triple-double until sometime told him with 14 seconds left in the game. He also acknowledged being a little bit winded down the stretch after having to single-handedly manage the point guard responsibilities once Agbaji got tossed with 8:51 remaining.

Not that he was going to show it or ask out.

“Guys — especially in my position — we ask to play all the time, so when you get your chance, [Hardy] don’t want to hear that you’re tired!” Dunn explained. “That was in the back of my mind: ‘You know what? This is my opportunity. I ain’t got time to be complaining and [say] that I’m tired. Just go out there and hoop!’”

Just go out there and hoop was pretty much a microcosm of the team’s season as a whole.

Dunn scored nine of his points in the fourth quarter, and the Jazz were within a single possession of the full-strength and everything-to-play-for Lakers right up until Anthony Davis scored a close-range bucket with 1:56 to play.

Hardy was just proud to see his team compete and defy expectations one last time.

“Yeah, we’ve talked a lot about just let us play the games. Everybody has a preconceived notion. I understand that it’s people’s jobs to have opinions — I understand all that,” Hardy said. “But we’ve talked a lot with the team this year about, don’t let anybody tell you who you are, and no matter what anybody says is supposed to happen, we’ve still got to go play 48 minutes. And I think our team has embodied that this year.

“We’ve just gone out and played our hearts out every single night, regardless of who’s in or who’s out,” he added. “So it’s fun. It’s fun as a coach when you get to go into every game, knowing that no matter what’s going to happen in the game, in terms of making shots or turnovers or fouls, you know that your team is not going to lose for lack of effort. And I think that gives you a lot of peace of mind as a coach going into a game knowing that that’s gonna be there every game.”