"Season Of Close Games" | Markkanen And Kessler's Double-Doubles Power Utah Down The Stretch Against Toronto

Ryan Kostecka
Digital Content Writer

Surprise, surprise — Utah found itself in another close game late in the fourth. 

After a thrilling and exciting final 12 minutes that saw impressive shotmaking and offensive creation on both sides, the Jazz got the final say. A Walker Kessler rebound, followed by free throws from Mike Conley, clinched the 131-128 victory over Toronto on Wednesday night. 

"A good team win against a hard-playing, really physical team," head coach Will Hardy said postgame. "Six guys in double figures, those nights are always indicators to me that a lot of guys were making plays. The guys executed well, I thought our ball movement was tremendous. … We give ourselves a chance in what seems to be a season of close games."

After being named to the 2023 Jordan Rising Stars Game on Tuesday, Kessler was dominant against the smaller Raptors on Wednesday night. 

To say that Kessler dominated the paint would be an understatement — he was that good as Toronto had a challenging time scoring in the paint with Kessler looming. He finished with his 11th double-double of the season by posting 17 points and 14 rebounds. He was on triple-double watch for a while but finished with seven blocks, tying a career-high.

Kessler also became the second-fastest Jazz player to reach 100 career blocks, doing so in 50 games. Mark Eaton, one of the greatest shot blocks of all time, reached 100 blocks in just 48 games. 

With Kessler finding out his All-Star fate on Tuesday, Lauri Markkanen will find out his fate on Thursday when the reserves for the All-Star game are announced later that night. But if Wednesday was Markkanen's last chance to impress the selection committee, consider it a successful showing.

He finished with his 20th double-double of the season, posting 28 points and 13 rebounds on 7-of-13 shooting from the field, 4-for-9 from beyond the arc, and 10-of-10 from the free throw line. 

When the Jazz needed him most, he rose to the occasion. He scored 17 points in the second half and then added seven points and three rebounds in the final eight minutes to help seal the victory. 

"First of all, none of us are hoping... we are all EXPECTING Lauri to be an All-Star," Hardy said. "Tomorrow night is going to be fun."

Although it may be his 16th season in the league, Conley continues to be one of the better pure point guards in the game — and Wednesday was more of the same. 

He finished with a season-high 19 points on 5-of-8 shooting, adding eight assists, three rebounds, and two blocks. He also shot a perfect 9-of-9 from the free throw line.

With Markkanen, Kessler, and Jordan Clarkson getting most of the headlines — and deservedly so — Conley continues to arguably be Utah's most important player. His calming demeanor in the clutch, always ensuring the Jazz aren't rushed and get into their offense, can't be understated. 

"Mike has been such a steadying force for us late in games," Hardy said of Conley. "He and I have developed very good communication with what we'd like to do late in the game, and he's done a great job of relaying that with the team. … His decision-making continues to be great."

It was a fun start for Utah as Kessler backed up that selection with one of the most impressive quarters of his young career. He finished with six points, four rebounds, and four blocks in just eight minutes of action, completely dominating the paint. 

He wasn't the only Jazz player to get off to a good start as Utah looked like a team well-rested, going on a 10-0 run to lead 10-2 early. With Kessler in control on the defensive end, the Jazz continued to push the tempo, leading by as many as 12 late in the first following a Collin Sexton three. 

But the Raptors would battle back, ending the quarter on a 7-0 run following a pair of Chris Boucher dunks. 

The Jazz led 31-26 after one. 

After a Toronto bucket to begin the second, the Jazz found a rhythm again as Malik Beasley and Sexton hit back-to-back threes, as Utah went on a 12-2 run. 

Utah's lead would stay at double digits for the remainder of the quarter, with a Clarkson three giving the Jazz a 60-47 advantage with just over three to play in the half. But that's when the Raptors rallied behind the play of Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakim. 

A quick 10-0 run over the next two minutes saw Utah's lead dwindle to three, and Vivint Arena got quiet. But Markkanen, as he's done all season, answered the call with a personal 5-0 run — before Toronto ended the half on a buzzer-beating three by Gary Trent Jr. 

The Jazz led 65-60 at the break.

Hardy wasn't pleased with Utah's start to third, calling a timeout after Toronto's 13-6 run put the Jazz into their first deficit since the first bucket of the game. Despite Kessler contesting nearly every shot in the paint, the Raptors made a living by dominating the offensive glass. 

The timeout was well-timed as Clarkson and Markkanen knocked down back-to-back threes on the next two possessions to retake the lead. The teams would then battle back and forth for the remained of the quarter, with neither being able to pull away.

An 8-2 run by Utah — with five points from Markkanen — gave the Jazz a six-point lead with just under five to go in the quarter. But Toronto kept battling, cutting the deficit to one following another dunk by Boucher. Utah responded to close the quarter strong as a Clarkson three swung the momentum back towards the Jazz. 

Utah led 96-92 after three. 

It was another slow start for the Jazz as Toronto started the fourth on a 6-0 run to take the lead less than three minutes in — but this time, Ochai Agbaji answered with back-to-back threes as the Jazz led by four midway through the quarter.

The back-and-forth was beginning as the Raptors retook the lead following a 5-0 run, but the Jazz answered. A Markkanen three capped a dominating stretch by him and Kessler as Utah rallied off a 9-0 run to lead 113-105 with 4:10 to go. 

Toronto refused to go away, knocking down four threes over three minutes — but the Jazz answered on every offensive possession. Whether Conley with an and-one, Clarkson with a three, or Markkanen with a big bucket, the Jazz came up clutch when needed down the stretch to pull out the win. 

"That game is sort of exactly what we talked about pregame," Hardy said. "Our emphasis in the second half was to maintain our space, make early decisions, don't over-dribble, and rebound as a team. … Overall, I thought our initial physicality in the game was great and helped us maintain our mindset and aggressiveness throughout the game. We matched their physicality."

Clarkson finished with a very quiet 23 points, including 17 in the second half, while adding five assists and two rebounds. Beasley and Sexton paced Utah's second unit with 14 and 12 points, respectively.

The Jazz will continue the homestand on Friday when they host Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. MT