Heading into this season, head coach Will Hardy established the moniker "Team 49."
With so many questions swirling around the Jazz, Team 49 was a rallying call for the players, the staff, the organization, and Jazz Nation. It was about focusing solely on this team for this season — letting go of the past and not looking toward the future.
Hardy has stuck to that identity throughout many trials and tribulations, highs and lows. Now with just 12 games left in the regular season, Utah is starting to reap the benefits — And that was never more obvious than Saturday's victory over Boston.
Saturday night was special because it wasn't one star carrying the team. All five starters made clutch plays over the final few minutes, helping lead to the win.
Trailing by six with 2:31 to go, Lauri Markkanen kickstarted the comeback with a pair of free throws. Ochai Agbaji hit a big three to make it a one-point game, but Jaylen Brown responded for Boston with a three. Markkanen again was the answer for the Jazz, knocking down a three to make it a one-point game with 1:11 remaining.
After getting a stop defense, Talen Horton-Tucker scored the game-winner with a layup with 35 seconds remaining. The Jazz got another stop, but Horton Tucker turned the ball over with five seconds remaining, giving Boston one last chance. The Celtics got the ball to Grant Williams at the post, and after getting around Markkanen, his shot was blocked by Walker Kessler, sealing the comeback win for the Jazz.
"It means everything that these guys get to play against this kind of team," Hardy said after the win. "You can't simulate this kind of thing. The crowd. The moment. No matter how much you turn the music up during practice, you can't simulate this kind of moment. … So the fact that these guys are able to play in this moment this early in their careers means everything."
While Utah's comeback victory is easily one of their best wins of the season — especially given the circumstances and who it came against — the real story was about who closed the game for the Jazz and how they performed in the biggest moments.
Horton-Tucker has taken advantage of his opportunity to stake his claim to the starting point guard role — doing all of this after being in and out of the rotation for the early parts of the season. His near 37-point triple-double a week ago was one of the best performances of the regular season.
Markkanen entered the season with many questions surrounding him. Was he a franchise player, a role player? What position did he play, how do you take advantage of his physical measurements? He's answered every last one, becoming a first-time All-Star and garnering legitimate All-NBA consideration in his breakout season.
Kessler, widely considered a backup center coming out of the draft, was traded before he stepped onto an NBA court. He's emerged as a legitimate cornerstone for the Jazz, a soon-to-be All-Rookie selection, and potential Defensive Player of the Year.
Like Kessler, Agbaji was traded before stepping onto an NBA court. While spending most of his rookie season in the G-League, he's emerged over the past month as a potential long-term starter with tremendous upside.
"Would I have taken that shot earlier? No," Agbaji said with a laugh. "But, my coaches and my teammates have given me the confidence to step up and try and make plays when they matter."
"That was the biggest moment for me," Hardy said. "The fact that he took that shot, much less made the shot, that he took that shot is a huge part of growth. I don't think a month ago he even looked at the basket in that situation."
All four of these players are currently 25 or younger and played critical roles in the win. But more than anything, they're getting some incredible experience late in the season as Utah pushes for the postseason.
"Ochai's 3 was a massive play for us, obviously. … Walker continuing to be an anchor defensively, rebounding down the stretch, his late block on Grant Williams," Hardy said. "To be in that moment and to be responsible for executing to try to win a game, that's really important for us. … It's important for us today to try to win this game, but it's also going to be really important for us moving forward."
Make no mistake, at the end of the day, Saturday's victory was just that; a victory. There was clinching of the postseason, no division title, nothing big.
But it was a significant stepping stone in the growth of this team.
Hardy is letting the young players on the team grow through pain and mature through difficult circumstances — and it's now paying off. While focusing solely on Team 49, the Jazz are simultaneously laying the groundwork for a bright and exciting future.
"You can't manufacture this training," Hardy said. "You can't simulate coming down the stretch of the game against one of the best teams in the NBA. … A loud arena, the pressure, the scramble, the communication. You can't simulate playing a team with that quality in a close game. … That stuff is so big for the growth of our team, and, for sure, our young players."