Following Utah's loss to Dallas on Tuesday night, Jazz head coach Will Hardy believed his team was closer than many thought to breaking their four-game losing streak. Although he said Dallas deserved to win that showdown, Hardy also felt his team deserved to win based on their competitiveness and how well they played.
"I thought our team deserved to win — nothing against Dallas at all — the way we competed, I was very proud of the way our guys battled tonight," he said that night.
Fast forward to Thursday night against Orlando, and the Jazz made sure there would be no disappointment in the visiting locker room. As what's defined their season, the Jazz pulled away in the clutch minutes to pick up the 131-124 victory over the Magic.
"I was really pleased with a team win on the road," Hardy said. "We talked a lot about this being about the whole team, everyone has something to bring and contribute to us winning games. When everyone stays focused and understands what everyone else brings to the party, we can play really good basketball."
Here are five things to know following the win:
1.) Markkanen Thrives In Second Meeting
The last time these two teams met, it wasn't the best game of the season for Lauri Markkanen. Although he still finished with a game-high 28 points and 12 rebounds, he shot just 4-of-13 from the field and struggled against Orlando's length and bevy of defenders.
Thursday night was a different story.
Markkanen was once again sensational — and this time much more efficient — finishing with 31 points and five rebounds on 11-of-22 from the field and 3-of-9 from deep. Refusing to be rushed and playing at his own pace, Markkanen was great coming off screens and navigating his way to the rim.
He also sealed the victory when he hit a floater in the lane over two Magic defenders, giving Utah a five-point lead with 10 seconds remaining to put the nail in the coffin.
2.) Different Night, Same Story
In what's really emerged as a theme for the Jazz this season, Thursday's game came down to the clutch — and again, Utah found a way to pull out the victory.
While Markkanen may have hit the shot that sealed the win, it wasn't even the biggest shot in the final five minutes. Talen Horton-Tucker, Kris Dunn, and Walker Kessler had huge buckets that answered every Magic shot to keep Utah ahead late.
After Orlando cut the deficit to two, Kessler got a great stop defensively and finished with a dunk on the other end, while Dunn followed up with a bucket in the lane. But the Magic answered with a 5-0 run to cut Utah's lead to one with less than a minute to play.
Kessler was again the answer, grabbing an offensive rebound and getting the and-one to put the Jazz back up four with 35 seconds to go. After Banchero sunk a free throw, Markkanen closed things out.
3.) Horton-Tucker Shows Continued Growth
With Utah's two primary ball handlers, Jordan Clarkson and Collin Sexton, still out recovering from injuries, a lot of pressure had fallen on the shoulders of Horton-Tucker. While there have definitely been growing pains — said as much by Hardy — Horton-Tucker is getting more comfortable running the offense.
After making positive strides in the second half of Tuesday's game, Horton-Tucker carried that momentum with him into Thursday's showdown.
He finished with 23 points on 10-of-18 from the field. Most importantly, he finished with eight assists to two turnovers, showing his command of the offense and the ability to attack under control.
"He did a great job of knowing when to attack and when to find his teammates. ... I know he had 23 points, but it was eight assists that did it," Hardy said.
4.) Kessler Wins Rookie Battle With Banchero
One of the underlying stories of the Jazz-Magic showdown on Thursday night was the battle between Kessler and Orlando rookie Paolo Banchero.
While Banchero appears poised to run away with the Rookie of the Year award — and for a good reason, he's deserving — Kessler has made a late push to at least make things interesting. They both won Rookie of the Month for February and appear locks for All-Rookie nominations, making the game even more exciting.
Although neither admitted that the game felt like a one-on-one battle, it took 30 seconds before they faced off against one another. Kessler found himself matched up with Banchero on the perimeter and, using his length and athleticism, pinned Banchero's first shot off the backboard.
In the end, both players showed why they're so highly touted. Kessler dropped a double-double of 13 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, and three blocks, while Banchero caught fire in the fourth to finish with 26 points and eight rebounds.
5.) Bench Provides Spark
As two starters — Clarkson and Sexton — sat in street clothes on Thursday, the Jazz knew they were going to need contributions from everyone if they were going to end the losing streak.
And that's precisely what they got.
Simone Fontecchio gave the Jazz a great spark off the bench, finishing with 17 points and three steals, while Dunn added 12 points, nine rebounds, four rebounds, and three steals.
Fontecchio was particularly effective in the first three quarters, showing a willingness to attack the rim while still popping from the outside. While Dunn did most of his damage in the fourth with elite defense that helped turn the tide, he was great at breaking down Orlando's defense and made a living in the paint.
"I'm just happy for the guys to dig in and get a win on the road," Hardy said. "I thought our team stayed focused and executed throughout the whole game. Seven guys in double figures, and a lot of guys made a lot of big plays tonight. … Just really proud."