"Staying Focused" | Jazz Come Up Clutch On Both Ends, Take Down Orlando 112-108

Ryan Kostecka
Digital Content Writer

If it hasn’t been done yet, it’s time to start putting some respect on Walker Kessler’s name. 

Initially considered an afterthought following the Rudy Gobert trade between the Timberwolves and Jazz, Kessler has been an absolute revelation in his first season in the NBA — Friday night was further proof. 

Kessler grabbed a key offensive rebound and knocked down two free throws in the final 13 seconds as the Jazz picked up a big 112-108 victory over Orlando. Kessler’s clutch plays late were part of a more prominent theme for this team as they’re proving to be among the most resilient teams in the league. 

“I think that’s another example of our team staying focused through a really tough stretch and finding a way to win. … A couple guys made some really big plays,” head coach Will Hardy said. “There was a really tough stretch, and the guys just dug in. … They never wavered in their approach, they were really locked in on just getting a stop and a basket when we went down one.”

Although the Jazz came out with the win, it wasn’t easy — and it didn’t go as planned. 

Utah appeared to be running away with the game when they led by 12 with just under six to play following a pair of Lauri Markkanen free throws. But the Magic refused to go away, going on a 19-6 run to lead by one with 42.1 seconds to play. 

Jordan Clarkson answered with a layup on the ensuing possession, giving the Jazz an ideal scenario — up one and guaranteed to get the ball back based on time. After getting a stop, Collin Sexton was fouled but missed his two free throws, the last of which Kessler grabbed the offensive rebound — and the rest is history. 

“A lot of great stuff down the stretch,” Hardy said. “Just overall very happy that the team was able to maintain focus because I think it would’ve been easy to kind of let go. Another big one tomorrow.”

Kessler was dominant on both ends of the court, finishing with a near triple-double of 13 points, nine rebounds, seven blocks, and two steals. He shot 5-of-6 from the field and 3-for-6 from the free throw line, including those two big ones in the end. 

Going up against a long and athletic Magic team with six players standing 6-foot-10 or taller in their rotation, Kessler was the one who dominated the paint. He was particularly effective on the offensive glass, grabbing seven rebounds that helped lead to 22 second-chance points for the Jazz. 

“I don’t know if you could tell but I was beaming from ear to ear,” Kessler said about his two free throws late. “I went up there and touch did the rest. … I’m not going to talk about the other free throws I missed, but I’m just happy we got the win.

Entering the game as one of the most efficient players in the NBA, Markkanen had an off-night against Orlando’s physical defense. After a hot opening 12 minutes, he failed to hit a shot in the final three quarters — but this is where his maturity came into play. 

Knowing the Magic were trying to be physical with him, Markkanen kept attacking the hoop and eventually made a living at the free throw line. He finished 17-of-21 from the charity stripe en route to 28 points, adding 12 rebounds, two assists, and one block. 

With Mike Conley out, Jordan Clarkson took over as the primary playmaker for the Jazz — and he didn’t disappoint. Although he only finished with two assists, he was instrumental in ensuring Utah got into its sets and could execute when it mattered most. 

He finished with 23 points and a career-high 12 rebounds.

Following a few days off, the Jazz came out with energy and jumped out to an early 16-10 lead after a quick 11-2 run. After the Magic cut the deficit to three late in the first, Markkanen caught fire with a personal 8-0 run — including two threes.

The Jazz led 36-27 after one. 

After a bucket by Jarred Vanderbilt gave Utah an 11-point lead, the Magic responded with threes on their next three possessions to cut the deficit to two and force a Hardy timeout. Buckets by Talen Horton-Tucker and Vanderbilt helped stop the run, but Orlando drilled another three to make it a three-point game. 

The Magic would later cut the deficit to one, but could never get over the top as Kessler answered for the Jazz. A personal 7-0 run gave the Jazz a 54-46 lead with just over four to play in the half. 

Utah led 61-56 at the break.

A 10-4 run to open the third gave Orlando its first lead since early in the first quarter, eventually expanding it to three at the midway point of the quarter.

However, the lead was short-lived as Utah responded with an 8-0 run with Collin Sexton and Markkanen did the damage. The Jazz were poised to run away with the game, but Franz Wagner knocked down back-to-back threes on their final two possessions of the third to keep Orlando alive. 

Utah led 88-83 entering the fourth. 

The final 12 minutes began with the Jazz slowly pulling away, as five consecutive free throws gave Utah its 12-point lead — but that’s when the drama was just beginning. 

In his first game back after missing the past two weeks, Sexton was sensational off the bench with 18 points, three assists, and three rebounds. Vanderbilt finished with seven points, nine rebounds, and two assists. 

Utah returns to action on Saturday night when they host Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers — tipoff is set for 7 p.m. MT.