The Utah Jazz just keep doing it in different ways.
On Wednesday night they improved to 10-3 on the season, beating the Atlanta Hawks 125-119 with Lauri Markkanen once again leading the way on a season-high 32 points.
But don’t be fooled by the final score or by Markkanen’s brilliance. This game was not an easy one for the Jazz.
They blew a 15-point lead, their starters absolutely fell flat in the third quarter and they needed some heroics from the bench to get back within striking distance.
The more important point, though, is that they were able to pull themselves out of the rut they fell into in the third, which brings me to the first point of the night.
Finding ways to win
I know that this team is not last year’s team (the personnel alone makes that incredibly obvious), but it’s hard not to compare the two, and one of the biggest things that comes to mind when I think about last year’s Jazz team is that they would not have won a game like this.
They wouldn’t have beaten the Memphis Grizzlies back on Oct. 31, they definitely wouldn’t have beaten the LA Clippers on Sunday and all the evidence we have suggests that last year’s Jazz would have been punched in the mouth in the third quarter, gotten down 10 points and then kind of just hung around through the rest of the game before fighting for maybe the last two minutes of the fourth but doing too little, too late.
This year’s Jazz team just has a lot more grit and fire and fight and all the intangible characteristics that have brought them to a 10-3 start, the best beginning for the franchise in 16 years.
And this team doesn’t win the same way every night. It can be Collin Sexton taking over in the final moments like it was in the season opener against the Denver Nuggets, it can be a Kelly Olynyk game-winner like it was against the New Orleans Pelicans, it can be finding the right mix of offensive movement to exploit the defense like it was against the Clippers and it can be the bench activity from Sexton, Walker Kessler and Malik Beasley like it was on Wednesday night against the Hawks.
This Jazz team has a lot of weapons, and their unselfishness might be their most lethal. It’s impressive that they didn’t let go on Wednesday against a Hawks team that had just handed the Milwaukee Bucks their first loss of the season.
The Hawks were playing well and riding high, and the Jazz would have had every excuse to lose this one, but they didn’t, and that’s the mark of a good team.
The Jazz went into halftime with a nine-point lead, and at the 3:06 mark of the third quarter they were trailing the Hawks by 10 points.
“The third quarter was… not very good in a lot of ways,” Jazz head coach Will Hardy said, pausing midway through that sentence, trying to find the right words.
“It started with our defense to start the half giving up offensive rebounds, giving up cuts, not being disciplined or understanding personnel and isolation. They scored on something like their first 16 or 16 of their first 17 possessions of the third quarter, and that was just a lack of attention to detail, a lack of aggressiveness.”
The Hawks called timeout with 3:06 left in the third, and from that point on, the Jazz outscored them 49-33.
Kessler, Sexton and Beasley saved the day, and there were big moments from each player. Kessler, Talen Horton-Tucker and Rudy Gay all blocked a shot during that stretch, Beasley knocked down big shot after big shot and Mike Conley came in during the final stretch to calm the team and refocus everything.
In the fourth quarter there was some real greatness from the veterans and usual suspects, but the Jazz wouldn’t have even had a chance if it weren’t for the bench players who brought the Jazz within five points before the fourth began.
From there, the Jazz ran full steam ahead, swinging things back in their favor and forcing the Hawks to play from behind.
Will Hardy coaching through a tough stretch
“Every game, especially road games, is going to present you with moments that are not going your way and the other team goes on a run and the crowd gets into the game,” Hardy said.
“You have to find a way to recenter yourself and stick together, and I thought our team did that really, really well.”
The Jazz had just lost their halftime lead and Hardy called a timeout. Out of that timeout, the Jazz continued to lose their way.
As mentioned above, they were trailing with 3:06 left in the third, but Hardy didn’t call another timeout during that stretch. He actually let the Jazz continue to play until the Hawks called timeout.
During that timeout, Hardy barely talked to his group. The Jazz were ready to go out of the timeout well before it was over and were left standing to watch the Kiss Cam on the Jumbotron.
Why didn’t Hardy call timeout sooner? Why did he let the Hawks get up 10 without stopping things? What did he say or not say to the team?
“I think there’s moments where I have to be calm, and I have to give our team a sense of confidence, and snapping off two quick timeouts sometimes creates a little bit of panic in your own group,” Hardy said.
“We had shown in the last couple of minutes the framework of how we wanted to play. We had rebounded better as a team, we had better spacing offensively and the ball was moving around, so that timeout was reassuring them that ‘Hey, we’re on the right track now. Now we’ve got to just dig in and keep doing it. We have a long time to go. There’s 15 minutes left in this game, which is an eternity,’ so it was more a moment that I tried to just give our team confidence that the game wasn’t lost.”
He was right. It wasn’t.