Head coach Will Hardy knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
Granted, the Warriors were playing without starters Steph Curry, Andrew Wiggins, and Draymond Green — but the Jazz were severely hampered also. Leading scorer Lauri Markkanen and veteran point guard Mike Conley missed Wednesday’s showdown with the defending champs.
In the end, it wasn’t easy — but Utah got the job done.
Thanks to clutch play by Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Simone Fontecchio, the Jazz stunned the defending champs 124-123 on Wednesday night in front of a loud and raucous home crowd.
“I thought our crowd was incredible tonight, especially down the stretch,” Hardy said. “We had a variety of guys step up tonight. I continue to be amazed by our team’s resilience and their willingness to let it rip. … They never flinch in weird moments of the game.”
Here are five things to know following the win:
1.) What. A. Game.
The final minute was as dramatic as it gets, with the Jazz overcoming multiple deficits to pull out the win. Tied at 119 following a Jordan Clarkson bucket, the Warriors took a two-point lead with 35.9 seconds left following a Jonathan Kuminga dunk.
Then chaos happened.
Clarkson got entangled with Kuminga on the following possession, resulting in a flagrant two and ejection, while Kuminga and Malik Beasley were assessed technicals. Jordan Poole and Kuminga each knocked down a free throw, making it a four-point game with 13.3 to play.
Alexander-Walker made a great read on offense, finding Beasley for a wide-open three-pointer, making it a one-point game with 7.8 seconds left. Alexander-Walker then stole the ball from Poole on the inbounds pass, leading to a fast break where Beasley found Simone Fontecchio for a dunk and the win.
“A lot of things happened in tonight’s game with guys getting injured and thrown out,” Hardy said. "Obviously, a crazy end to the game. … Ended up having another late-game situation, one we are all too familiar with at this point. They continue to adapt and they do it together. … That’s what’s made Team 49 so fun to this point in the year.”
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Utah was 1-718 when trailing by 4-plus points inside the final 10 seconds of the 4th quarter over the last 25 seasons.
Make that 2-718!
2.) Bravo, Simo
Fontecchio has played professional basketball since he was 16, yet he never got his chance in the NBA — until this year.
He’s made the most of his time with Utah, emerging as a legitimate three-point threat with good athleticism and acumen for the game.
But with a special group in the crowd, Fontecchio played the best game of his younger career on a night the Jazz needed him most.
With his national team coach in the stands, he provided a huge lift off the bench after scoring a career-high 18 points. He shot 6-of-10 from the floor, 3-for-6 from beyond the arc, and 3-of-5 from the free throw line.
“He comes into work every single day,” Hardy said of Fontecchio. “He’s another guy that never complains or asks for more. We all know that he’s a capable player. … He can really shoot, he’s smart, and he knows what he’s doing. He reads the game really well.”
3.) Starter Kessler?
With the Jazz already shorthanded without Markkanen, Hardy elected to start rookie big man Walker Kessler, saying pregame that the team would need his size and length to deal with the physical Warriors rebounders.
Not only did Kessler hold his own against Kevon Looney and Golden State, but he was also downright impressive.
In 24 minutes, he finished with a double-double of 10 points and 12 rebounds, tying his career-high five blocks. He shot 5-of-6 from the floor and grabbed four offensive boards.
While Hardy admitted that Kessler’s start was nothing more than a matchup scenario, one is left to ponder how bright the future is for the big man out of Auburn.
4.) NAW, He Good
After falling in and out of Will Hardy’s rotation, Alexander-Walker was called upon in a massive spot on Wednesday night — and he delivered.
In what were the two most important plays of the game, it was Alexander-Walker who stepped up and made them.
While his steal will go down as one of the best defensive plays of the season, using his quick hands to knock the ball away from Poole and lead to the game-winner, it’s what he did on the previous possession that gave the Jazz a chance.
Up four with 13 seconds to go, the Warriors were more than content to let Alexander-Walker take the open layup as he drove to the hoop. But instead of shooting, Alexander-Walker did what no one expected, passing on the easy two points and finding a wide-open Beasley for the three-pointer — and keeping the Jazz alive.
He finished with 11 points, seven rebounds, four assists, and three steals, shooting 3-of-4 from three-point territory in 29 minutes.
“Nickeil showed great poise after getting thrown in and closing the game for us,” Hardy said. “He’s been tremendous this year staying ready. His minutes have gone up and down depending on who we are playing. … He never complains, continues to work really hard, and always seems to be ready.”
5.) Injury Report
When it comes to injuries and illness, the Jazz have had a rough go of things lately.
Their two most-veteran players in Conley and Rudy Gay have been out for at least 2.5 weeks, leading to some struggles in the clutch as they bring a sense of calm and maturity to the team.
While both of them returned to full-contact practice this week, it was Gay who finally made his return to the court when he finished with nine points and four rebounds in 15 minutes.
Although Conley went through his typical pregame warmup, he was ruled out ahead of time. He could return on Friday when the Jazz welcome Rudy Gobert and Minnesota to Utah.
Markkanen missed Wednesday’s showdown while dealing with an illness of some kind. His availability should be fluid moving forward, but it’s assumed he won’t miss an extended amount of time.
Unfortunately, Collin Sexton — who’s been starting and starring in place of Conley — left in the middle of the fourth quarter and didn’t return. He said postgame that it was a tweak of a hamstring, and his leaving was more precautionary than anything. Hamstrings can be fickle little things, so the Jazz will surely be careful with him moving forward.