Gordon Monson: The Utah Jazz offer up a big surprise, if only Will Hardy could figure out what it is

The young coach and his team are still attempting to figure themselves out. But the 36-year-old looked like he had them going in the right direction in a win over OKC.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz head coach Will Hardy has a chat with Utah center Walker Kessler (24), guard Jordan Clarkson (00) forward Lauri Markkanen (23), in NBA between the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder at the Delta Center, on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024.

After his team grabbed a thrilling 124-117 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, an opponent that beforehand happened to have the best record in the Western half of the NBA, on Tuesday night, Will Hardy was asked a question that seemed to stump him. It was an innocent question, one that when it reverberated in his ears and caromed around in his expansive basketball brain had the effect of a two-by-four swung straight smack-dab into the middle of his forehead.

Is there anything specific that surprises you about this Jazz team?

Following a long pause, and the scratch of an itch or two, the real smart man, who even at the tender age of 36 has forgotten more about hoops than a lot of educated folks ever knew, responded in the manner most of us would if we were asked to solve the Riemann Hypothesis, mathematics’ most complex, unsolvable problem.

All anyone in the interview room heard was, “Everything.” Or maybe it was, “Nothing.”

That’s what happens when the everything-and-nothing Jazz knock off a visitor that coming in had won 10 more games than they had and lost 11 fewer.

And in the postgame, the Jazz appeared as though they weren’t quite sure exactly what had just taken place. What they knew was that the result, as Lauri Markkanen put it, felt good.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward John Collins (20) grabs a rebound, in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder at the Delta Center, on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024.

In the locker room, after their showers were finished, veteran guard Kris Dunn and rookie guard Keyonte George and star forward Markkanen, each having played huge roles in the win and each now standing in front of his own locker, discussed one of the game’s pivotal final plays, a play that somehow went cattywampus, but still ended with Markkanen hitting a decisive, devastating jumper from deep.

Hey, victory’s kisses are soft and sweet, regardless of how plump or pencil-thin its lips are.

But to designate what the Jazz achieved against the Thunder as anything other than impressive and earned would be a mistake. Dunn played great defense down the stretch on OKC star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who still totaled 28 points. He might have gone for 40 without Dunn’s efforts.

Hardy labeled Dunn’s defense “magnificent” and “amazing.”

Markkanen boosted his rise as an NBA force with 33 points on 12-for-18 shooting, 5-for-7 from 3. Said Hardy: “Lauri was clearly who we had to play through [at the end].”

That statement might seem like a no-duh, Sherlock, but Hardy admitted that he’s uncertain he’s consistently seen or used the Jazz’s leading scorer from Finland in the role his nickname — the Finnisher — suggests.

“I’m not sure I [regularly] put him in position to be our closer,” Hardy said. “… Lauri’s growth is probably going to put pressure on me to operate through him at the end of games. … We’re trying to grow together in that way. … I’m still learning. Lauri’s still learning.”

That’s a remarkable confession, really, actually a refreshingly candid one, from a coach and from a team still attempting to figure themselves out.

Some nights they play other-worldly, some nights they play like their world’s on fire, in a smoldering heap. Some months, they go 7-16, some months they go 15-4. And, fittingly enough, at this writing their record sits at 26-26. Half good, half bad.

George is the embodiment of that condition. The young point guard is absorbing his lessons in his first season, at times playing stellar ball, helping his team win, at times messing up, helping his team lose. Against the Thunder, he came off the bench to play nearly 27 important minutes, making better than half of his shots, including 4 of 6 from beyond the arc. He was the on-court quarterback for the Jazz attack as and after they came back from a double-digit deficit in the third quarter and especially into and through the fourth. Not only did he hit big shots, he also collected five assists against only one turnover.

“Keyonte has a real understanding of what’s going on in the game,” Hardy said.

But then, like most rookies, sometimes he doesn’t.

This much is plain: Keyonte George has an opportunity to become a stellar guard for the Jazz. He might not blow upward and forward into a perennial All-Star, lacking as he does some of the explosiveness seen in top NBA PGs, but the kid can flat play, maybe at a level not dissimilar from former revered Jazz guard Mike Conley, and that would please the Jazz no end. He might even have a bit of alpha-dog in him, a quality, outside of Dunn, in short supply on the Jazz.

Although Walker Kessler didn’t commandeer the court against OKC — he had four points, nine rebounds and three blocks in 20 minutes — he, too, is a developing story. He’s finding his way through his second season in the league, not infrequently contributing in a significant manner when Hardy lets him. His usage is one more to add to the Jazz mix of what the coach called “experimentation.”

There are mysteries yet to uncover and flesh out with this team, so many answers yet to find. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing and it’s a more compelling pursuit than simply punting on the entire endeavor, tanking for tanking’s sake. That’s one thing I’ve learned about this group. They’re incomplete, nobody’s idea of a world-beater, not even in embryonic form. They turn the ball over far too often. And they lack the substantial talent they need to consistently rise high.

But they can rise high on occasions, just like the one on Tuesday night, when they shared and shot the ball well, they D’d up when it was required, limiting OKC, Hardy gleefully pointed out, to a mere eight points in the paint in the second half. And they beat a team in a contest worthy of meaningful consideration, even in February’s regular-season doldrums.

As the confetti floated down from Delta Center’s ceiling on the Jazz at game’s end, there was a good vibe, all around. The winners patted and hugged one another, feeling like maybe they not only were getting better, but they were helping each other get better.

“We all love each other,” Markkanen said.

Said Hardy, with an approving nod: “They’re hard not to love.”

That much, most certainly, surprised the coach not at all.