Another last-second loss notwithstanding, Utah Jazz believe they are turning the corner

Beyond better point guard play sparking offensive consistency, the team has been bringing better energy levels on defense, and is focusing on cleaning up small details in executing the game plan.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) gets past Phoenix Suns guard Grayson Allen (8) to score in the final minute of double-overtime, in NBA action between the Phoenix Suns and the Utah Jazz, at the Delta Center, on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023.

A 4-9 record and back-to-back defeats at the hands the Suns are not, in a vacuum, encouraging signs.

And yet, once the Utah Jazz got past the frustration and disappointment of having a foul call reversed that could have potentially sent Sunday’s game into a third overtime session, both players and coaches came away expressing reasons for optimism.

“I really wanted this one for the team. I think they’ve put in a lot of work and they’ve stuck together, and I really thought tonight they deserved to win,” said coach Will Hardy. “So they’ll keep working and fighting. But I do think that there’s been a lot of really positive signs in terms of how the team is playing.”

Indeed, the team that walked off the Delta Center court in dejection Sunday night bore little resemblance to the one that, at the beginning of the month, endured a harrowing four-game slide that included a 28-point blowout by the Wolves, and surrendering 130 and 134 points, respectively, to the decidedly unjuggernautish Bulls and Pacers.

Steady and preternatural point guard play from rookie Keyonte George, combined with improved spacing throughout the roster, have bolstered the offense of late.

But there’s been more to the recent resurgence than that.

Some of it is schematic. Some of it is intangible.

It’s all adding up, though.

“I do think the team’s improving — I think that playing two games against a team like the Suns shows me that we’re improving,” said Hardy.

In terms of the X’s and O’s, the coach reiterated the improved spacing, while also noting that reads have been crisper and communication has improved, while on defense, the activity level has picked up considerably.

All-Star forward Lauri Markkanen also has noticed marked improvement in that latter area.

“We had our stretches today where it wasn’t as high as we want it to be, but for the most part, I think our competition level on the defensive end — just flying around — [has improved],” he said. “… Obviously we do our work scouting, and we have the game plan that we’re trying to execute and we’ve got to be smart with that, but the game plan doesn’t matter if you don’t bring the energy and fight. We’ve taken a little bit of a step in that part.”

Since Rookie of the Year finalist Walker Kessler injured his elbow and was subsequently ruled out for several weeks (the Jazz announced Monday that he will be re-evaluated in another week), Hardy noted the importance of other players recognizing that they had been using Kessler as a crutch for their own shortcomings on that end.

It’s something they’ve taken to heart.

“For sure, we were just relying on Walk, definitely. I do it all the time — I let my guy go by and I let Walk block shots,” big man Kelly Olynyk conceded with a laugh. “… Now, you’ve got to make sure you’re in good position, helping each other early, and it’s been good for us to build that [so] when we put Walker back in, hopefully we can just add that on top.”

And they are starting to see results, even if the Suns hitting 49% from the field and 40% from 3 on Sunday wouldn’t appear overly promising.

“Going into overtime, our defense had been far better in this game than it was last game, so I was very happy with that,” said Hardy.

We added that weak-side double teams were still something of a problem area, and that the execution and the communication need to be better still, and yet, “I felt like we made a big jump.”

As for the other stuff, John Collins said he sees progress coming not just in big-picture ways, but by players paying more attention to detail, by taking responsibility for cleaning up minor miscues that can have a cumulative deleterious effect.

“Most of the time they’re fixable, but it’s the small things that continue to add up to that deficit,” he said. “My missed layup, this turnover, that turnover, this missed boxout, this missed rotation — whatever it is, all those little things add up to points that we can control.”

He also wants to see the increased activity level that Hardy referenced when discussing the defensive improvement apply to other areas.

By upping their effort, he said, the Jazz can set a tone that will only help.

“We’re not coming out here just trying to play basketball — we’re trying to win,” said Collins. “There’s winners in this locker room.”

Markkanen was disappointed in the referees reversing the foul call on his game-tying 3-point attempt, believing the contact the officials subsequently declared “marginal” to be more than that.

Still, he didn’t feel like he came away empty-handed.

“Obviously you want to win that kind of game, but we showed that we can play with these guys,” he said.

Hardy wants them to remember that.

He also wants them to remember the prior four-game losing streak. And every other loss that has already happened. He wants some of the pain to linger.

Because if the losses still matter to them, then perhaps more wins won’t be far behind.

“It hurts, losing is no fun — and I want them and all of us to feel like the worst thing in the world would be losing going numb on anybody,” said Hardy.