Utah Jazz are feeling some swag after two big wins on the road

The team followed Saturday’s victory over the Sixers with another on Monday vs. the Bucks, and are hoping the confidence they’re feeling in the aftermath can produce more good results.

(Morry Gash | AP) Utah Jazz's Jordan Clarkson (00) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, in Milwaukee. The Jazz won 132-116, winning two of their last three road games.

Milwaukee • When Utah Jazz head coach Will Hardy was asked pregame last Friday about the upcoming sequence of matchups featuring the Celtics, 76ers, Bucks, and Nuggets, he quipped, “I appreciate the nightmare fuel.”

Reminded of that comment following Monday night’s 132-116 victory over Milwaukee, he pleaded ignorance.

“Did I say that?” Hardy interjected.

He did. But he can be forgiven for either genuinely not remembering or simply feigning ignorance. The Denver game is still to come this Wednesday at the Delta Center; but winning two of the three prior matchups — on the road, no less — has the team feeling a little more confident in the aftermath.

“I like to call it ‘swag,’ and our swag is a little up right now,” said Kris Dunn, who contributed 13 assists and anchored a defensive effort by playing what Hardy referred to as a free safety role defensively. “We just keep doing the right things. We have a lot of talent on this team. If we move the ball, if we guard at a high level, good things can happen, as we showed in this three-game road trip.”

The vibes were definitely different at the end of the trip than at the beginning.

A blowout loss in Boston, in which the Jazz made only 7 of their first 40 shots, was dispiriting.

But pulling off a victory the very next night in Philadelphia and then following that up with a wire-to-wire win against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks had the locker room in a decidedly vibrant mood, even as a huge winter snowstorm threatened their getaway.

It should be noted for posterity’s sake that the Sixers were playing without reigning Most Valuable Player Joel Embiid, while Milwaukee was sans the services of All-Star guard Damian Lillard.

Utah’s coaches and players are aware. And they are undeterred in their optimism.

(Morry Gash | AP) Utah Jazz's Collin Sexton during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, in Milwaukee.

“Those wins right there just show that we can pretty much play with the best of ‘em,” said Collin Sexton, whose 19 points Monday night at Fiserv Forum included back-to-back-to-back 3-pointers in a blistering first quarter. “We can play against anybody, no matter our record, no matter their record. We just gotta go lace our shoes up.”

They apparently were laced to perfection on this occasion.

After Utah shot just 8 for 30 from beyond the arc in Philadelphia, Hardy spoke pregame in Milwaukee about the need to get the Jazz’s spacing — particularly in the corners — re-optimized. The team made seven triples in the first seven minutes against the Bucks, and went 11 for 17 beyond the arc in the opening period overall en route to a shocking 41-23 lead.

“That first quarter was fun,” noted Lauri Markkanen, who would go on to finish with 21 points and 14 rebounds.

The good times continued in the second period, as Utah was 16 for 30 from deep by halftime in building up a 77-46 advantage.

The third saw the Bucks make an inevitable rally, as Utah’s habits got a bit sloppy and Milwaukee dialed up the energy, with the turnovers leading to transition and briefly cutting the advantage cut to single digits, before Utah settled for a 101-90 lead at the break.

The coach made it a point between quarters to project calm, and to give his players a reassuring message.

“We talked with this group about [how] we would have signed up [before the game] to be up 11 going into the fourth quarter,” said Hardy. “It was about trying to win the last 12 minutes and get out of here with a win.”

Check and check.

While Khris Middleton momentarily got the Bucks back within single digits, rookie Keyonte George followed with a 3 from beyond the arc, and then a floater-and-one that seemed to pump life back into the group — to say nothing of ballooning the lead back up to 15.

“The maturity throughout the whole game was the big thing,” Dunn noted, including the 20-year-old George within that.

The next few minutes would see Milwaukee surge, then the Jazz weather the attack, throw a counter-pinch, and re-expand the advantage.

And just like that, a team that seemingly couldn’t buy a win away from the Delta Center a month ago is now up to seven victories away from home this season.

“It’s good to come on the road and really get together as a team. There’s no fans behind us — it’s just what we have in the locker room,” said Markkanen. “It’s easier to come together on the road. We didn’t get many wins early in the year, but I think it’s starting to show off.”

Hardy, meanwhile, eventually conceded remembering the “nightmare fuel” comment.

Naturally, though, he felt a bit differently about the situation after seeing that stretch yield consecutive wins in the buildings of top-three teams in the Eastern Conference.

(Chris Szagola | AP) Utah Jazz's Lauri Markkanen, right, dunks as the Philadelphia 76ers look on during an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, in Philadelphia.

“I think it’s a great way for us to build confidence. It’s a great way for us to understand that when we play as a team, nobody has to do it on their own, and that we’re capable of beating good teams on the road,” said Hardy. “Early in the year, there were two question marks: 1. Can we be a good team? And 2. Can we win on the road? And to beat two good teams on the road — the success we’ve had on the road lately, not just these two, but the last three weeks, it’s big for the confidence of the team.”

Of course, the final game of that aforementioned killer quartet is yet to be played.

The Nuggets are up next.

And while the swag is up a little right now, the quest to answer that first question mark still hangs in the balance.

“It’s a long season — we don’t want to get too high or too low,” said Dunn. “We understand Denver’s a championship team and they’re coming into our house. And we’ve got to protect our home court.”

Two wins in this stretch are two more than some thought the team would get at all.

But if they can manage three? Well, then there just might not be any more nightmares to come the rest of this season.