The Triple Team: Utah Jazz’s brutal losing streak ends with some hustle and fan support

Jazz show improved effort, desperation in win vs. Rockets

Utah Jazz Kenneth Lofton Jr., left, blocks the shot of Houston Rockets guard Fred VanVleet (5) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, April 11, 2024, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 124-121 win over the Houston Rockets from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. The benefits of just trying harder

Maybe an underrated aspect of the Jazz’s losing streak has been simply the effort on the floor.

The NBA tracks Hustle stats after every game — though sadly, the stats aren’t updated in time for this Triple Team to be published nightly, so they’re rarely a focus of the conversation here. Still, here’s the hard data on how the Jazz have dropped off:

They’re getting two fewer deflections per game, recovering 1.5 fewer loose balls, and contesting a whopping nine fewer shots per game. Yikes! Add that to tumbling rebound stats and simple invisibility in transition defense, and you have a heck of a lot of evidence that the Jazz are just trying less hard than they used to.

Clearly, the trades flipped a switch. The players logically thought: if Danny Ainge and Justin Zanik aren’t going to try to win this year, why should I?

Well, the Jazz found an answer to that against the Rockets tonight. Instead of playing players with settled contracts, the likes of Johnny Juzang, Luka Samanic, Talen Horton-Tucker, Darius Bazley, and Kenneth Lofton, Jr got most of the minutes at the end of the game. All are free agents or nonguaranteed for next year. They’re not just playing for this game, but for their NBA lives.

“I think people that have unsettled contracts in general in this league are very desperate,” Jazz head coach Will Hardy said. “That group at the end, the way that they approached it, is how I want every player on the roster to play.”

Hardy said that he hopes every Jazz player, especially the rookies, can channel that energy more often. “Because if you try to wait until the moment when you’re desperate to find that and turn it on, it’s much harder.” He pointed to the examples of Kris Dunn and Luka Samanic, first round picks who fell out of the league quickly.

That’s true. While Keyonte George finished, Taylor Hendricks and Brice Sensabaugh sat on the bench while the others played. If they don’t improve, they’ll be out of the league too.

2. Is Kenneth Lofton, Jr. something?

First of all — while his teammates and coaches call him “Kenny,” when the media asked, he said he prefers “Kenneth.” So while Kenny is a bit easier off the tongue, I’ll try to remember “Kenneth.”

Anyway, whatever you call him, that guy rules. In his second season in the league, Lofton is still just 21. He’s a large human, at 6-7 and 275 pounds, making him a different shape than everyone in the NBA. He has an insane game that is predicated on terrific paint play in a very old school way — a lot of post-ups and then a lot of creating and scoring out of it. His nickname is Gen Z-Bo, referencing old Grizzlies star Zach Randolph, and that’s about right.

But look, I’m just buying the overall skills here. The standout NBA skill to me is honestly Lofton’s ability to pass. These are three gorgeous assists of his five total tonight. My favorite is the last one — look how much wily veteran Jeff Green is absolutely flabbergasted by his eye fake here!

He’s also just a bully down low... check out how early he does this work on the shot to get great rebounding position.

Obviously, the question with anyone that big is going to be defense. He’s just a tweener right now — too big to guard the perimeter, too small to protect the rim. He has good ball skills, though, with a surprising number of steals and blocks.

My hope would be that he can slim down a little bit, to the point where he can have more functional weight and move just well enough to cause more havoc. Truthfully, though, he is already skinnier than his Louisiana Tech days, and at just 21, there’s real hope that his body can change with NBA-level regimens. I’m excited about the possibility.

The swing skill, I suspect, is going to be the 3-point shot. He’s been a 32% 3-point shooter in limited NBA minutes, but only a 29% shooter in more G-League minutes. If he can get that up to, say, Kelly Olynyk’s 36%... I think he’s a no-doubter NBA player, and a good one.

3. Jazz fans are one of the best fanbases in the NBA

There were two standout moments for me from Jazz fans tonight.

First came as I entered the arena’s bowl, just as Johnny Juzang made a three to turn the score 5-5. (Usually, I’m in my seat well before the opening tip, but we had the chance to interview Lauri Markkanen pregame tonight and was late getting to my seat.) And after a 13-game losing streak, and with one of the Jazz’s two-way players making an early-game three, I was already presented with this incredible wall of sound walking in.

Then came the fourth quarter. And with just under two minutes left, and after this horrible month of basketball, with guys most fans haven’t heard of out there on the floor... fans rose to their feet to push the Jazz to victory.

Now, look, I’m not trying to be a PR flack here. Every team says their fans are the best in the NBA. Even, for example, the Wizards make the same assertion despite it being patently and obviously untrue.

Jazz fans are, at the very least, one of the best fan bases in the NBA. Yes, there were empty seats at times this season. Yes, there were times where the “sellout streak” became not an absolute truth. (I checked SeatGeek multiple times at halftime this season and found dozens of seats being sold by the team still available.) And yes, you can certainly find fans who have turned their television sets off this season in frustration.

But man, to have this level of support in Game 80, in this season? I do think it’s special. I hope Ainge, Zanik, and Smith do right by those fans — because they deserve that same level of support back.

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