Sarah Todd covers the NBA and Utah Jazz for the Deseret News.
The Utah Jazz beat the Golden State Warriors, 124-123, on Wednesday night with an absolute whirlwind and wild finish to the game.
The Warriors had a four-point lead with 13.3 seconds left to play. Then out of a timeout, Nickeil Alexander-Walker drove to the basket, had a wide-open opportunity for a layup and passed it up, instead dishing the ball out to Malik Beasley who hit a 3 to cut the Warriors lead to just one point with just 7.8 seconds left on the clock.
After a Warriors timeout, the Jazz came up with a steal thanks to the crafty hands of Alexander Walker and the determination of Beasley and Kelly Olynyk, and they pushed the ball up to Italian rookie Simone Fontechhio for a game-winning dunk with 1.4 seconds left.
The Jazz stormed the floor, celebrated, embraced Fontecchio and walked away exuberant. Not only had they won the game, but they’d done so while Mike Conley (left knee) and Lauri Markkanen (illness) were sidelined, Collin Sexton had left the game with a hamstring injury, and Jordan Clarkson had been ejected with less than a minute left.
Now that the dust has settled and the confetti has been cleared from the court, I think it’s a good idea to look at two things — the Jazz’s emphasis on late-game execution and what really happened on the final play.
At least twice already during this young NBA season the Jazz have failed to execute correctly on the final possession of a close game — first against the Phoenix Suns on Nov. 26 and then in similar fashion again Saturday against the Portland Trail Blazers.
Through the 27 games the Jazz have played this season, 19 have been decided by fewer than 10 points and 15 have been decided by seven points or less. The Jazz have clearly been in a lot of close games.
In those decided by seven points or less, the Jazz are 8-7. In games decided by seven points or less when the Jazz are playing without Conley, they are 2-4.
The Jazz have been working tirelessly on late-game situations at practices and shootarounds. Head coach Will Hardy has them running end-of-clock and final possession drills as much as he can fit it into their schedule.
The break the Jazz had at home between Saturday’s game against the Blazers and Wednesday’s game against the Warriors provided Hardy with a unique opportunity to drive home what he wanted to see at the end of a game.
Not only do the Jazz just need to be prepared for these situations, because they seem to be destined to be in many more of them, but they also need to have multiple people that they can rely on to make the right decisions at the end of games. Obviously Conley knows what he is doing and the Jazz can trust him. But it’s going to take a lot of reps to get some of the other players, who have not had to close out games in their career, up to speed.
All of this amounts to a lot of learning that is going to be done incrementally and can’t be expected to be perfect just 27 games into the season.
So then the Jazz were presented with a really tough situation Wednesday when they had to close a tight game without Conley (their best game manager), Markkanen (their best player), Clarkson (their bucket getter) and Sexton (who has been the backup point guard in training).
Amazingly, the Jazz came away the win! So at least that’s progress.
Final play of the game
I’m very happy for Fontecchio, who had a career-high 18 points, including his dunk that iced the game.
I’m glad for Alexander-Walker, who made probably the most important assist of the game and then the biggest defensive play when he stripped the ball away from Jordan Poole on the last play.
But … on rewatching the end, the Jazz probably shouldn’t have won this one. I think that it’s pretty hilarious that the Utah Jazz tweeted out the play in slow motion, saying, “LOOK AT THIS,” because when you really look at it there are at least two glaring issues.
First, after Poole loses the ball, it goes off Olynyk’s foot, which should have been called for a kicked ball resulting in the ball going side out of bounds for the Warriors. Then, Olynyk definitely fouls Poole.
Now, there is going to be an argument that can be made by both sides likely when the Last Two-Minute Report comes out tomorrow — I think that there were many other missed calls in the last two minutes — but if we’re just looking at that last possession, it probably shouldn’t have ended the way it did.