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Analysis: Jazz beat the Rockets despite a tough whistle

Utah improved to 4-1 on the season with a 109-101 win over Houston.

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Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) lands a big dunk over Houston Rockets guard Kevin Porter Jr. (3) during the game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

On Wednesday night, the Utah Jazz improved to 4-1 on the season with a 109-101 win over the Houston Rockets, who had recently handed the Jazz their lone loss of the season on Monday night.

Once again, the Jazz moved the ball well and had some impressive defensive moments with some highlight offensive outbursts from many of the usual suspects (Lauri Markkanen, Jordan Clarkson), but this game was not nearly as exciting as the other three wins under the Jazz’s collective belt.

Brutal whistle

The officiating crew of John Goble, Karl Lane and Phenizee Ransom, were not pulling any punches on Wednesday. After the game the Jazz players in the locker room were talking about how every little ticky-tack thing was being called and that it was bad on both sides.

All told there were 58 personal fouls called, 30 against the Rockets, 28 against the Jazz. Now that’s not an unheard of number in the NBA, but that’s still 11 more fouls than there were in Monday’s game between the same two teams.

Kelly Olynyk and Jarred Vanderbilt both fouled out of the game and three other players across both teams finished the night with five fouls, including Mike Conley. It was just the ninth time in a Jazz uniform that Conley has committed five fouls in a game.

It wasn’t just the number of the fouls that was surprising, it was the frequency of the calls and what it did to the game. Thirty-five of the 58 calls were made in the second half and it significantly slowed down the game.

“The fouling hurt us and them,” Jazz head coach Will Hardy said. “We were never really able to get in a rhythm offensively.”

That honestly makes the 28 assists on 38 made field goals more impressive, but it certainly didn’t make for aesthetically pleasing basketball.

Vanderbilt’s foul trouble

Certainly not all of the fouls called on Wednesday were a mistake, and Hardy absolutely does not want his players to stop playing aggressively and physically, but there is one player in particular who has had some really tough nights when it comes to fouling.

Through five games, Vanderbilt is averaging 5.2 fouls per game.

I have a few thoughts about this. First of all, I’m not overly concerned with it because Vanderbilt on his career averages 2.0 fouls per game. And last season, his best season, he didn’t have a problem early on in the season, so it feels like this is a bit of an anomaly. But fouling out in just 19 minutes on Wednesday is not great.

So why is it happening?

It could be that this is a new team, and there’s been a lot of emphasis on offensive rebounding and Vanderbilt is good at that and this team is a little chaotic and all of that makes for some chaos on the court. It could be that the league has implemented some new rules and they are just in the stages of calling games really tight early on in the season. It could also be that Vanderbilt is just taking some risks that he shouldn’t be.

“It’s not his physicality, it’s not his activity,” Hardy said, “It’s two or three a game that are just unnecessary. I think his fifth foul tonight was pushing someone in the back, 16 feet from the basket on an offensive rebound that he really wasn’t even going for. I think it’s just trying to find ways to understand the moment of the game, understand his own foul situation, to just try to keep away from some of those cheap ones.”

Lauri Markkanen without the 3-ball

Through five games with the Jazz, Markkanen is averaging a career-high 22 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game and doing so while shooting pretty poorly from 3-point range.

A career 36.2% 3-point shooter, Markkanen is shooting just 24.4% from 3 with the Jazz. That means that he’s found ways to be productive even when the ball isn’t falling the way he would like.

“I know the numbers will even out, so I keep working on it and it’ll start going in eventually,” Markkanen said. “But it feels good that I’m able to do other stuff than just rely on those shots.”

He’s getting to the rim, fighting to get to the free throw line and making the easy plays when they are available to him and it’s proving to work out really well. Who knows what will happen when the shots actually start to fall.

Markkanen finished with a game-high 24 points to go with nine rebounds in Wednesday’s win.