With Utah and Phoenix playing their third game in four days, Monday's showdown would be a battle of attrition.
Despite trailing by double digits in the first quarter, Utah battled back to lead late in the third — but that's where the comeback ended. The Jazz ran out of gas over the final 12 minutes and eventually fell 117-103 to the Suns.
“Tonight was a tough game,” head coach Will Hardy said. “I’m very proud of the way our team tried to play on both end. I thought on offense we did a pretty good job moving the ball for the majority of the night, but we could not throw the ball in the ocean for long stretches of time. … We missed some chippies at the rim, missed some wide open threes, and that can wear on you over time.”
After missing the past two games dealing with a left hand contusion, Lauri Markkanen knew it would take some time to find a rhythm again. After knocking down a three for Utah's first points of the game, the 7-footer struggled to find that rhythm against Phoenix's physical defense.
But as he's done all season, he's proven that he can score and contribute and other ways — and it was only a matter of time before he got going.
Using Phoenix's physicality against them, Markkanen made a living at the free throw line in the first half by going 8-of-8. This allowed him to find a rhythm for the rest of the game, finishing with 25 points, nine rebounds, and two assists.
When speaking with media before tipoff on Monday night, Walker Kessler laughed about his career-high 31-point performance against Sacramento two nights ago.
"I expected to get a triple-double with blocks before I dropped 30 in a game," he said. "But I only had one block, so you know, I'm an offensive guy, and the defense is slacking."
Although he was joking about his defense, Kessler didn't play like it. He was sensational on the night, finishing with 18 points, eight rebounds, and seven blocks — his fourth game this year with seven blocks.
He was so effective defensively that the Suns wanted nothing to do with him when he was lurking in the paint. It allowed the Jazz to run Phoenix off the three-point line knowing they still weren't going to take the ball inside and challenge Kessler at the rim.
After missing the past two games with a wrist injury, Markkanen made his presence felt early when he drilled a deep three for Utah's first points of the game. Talen Horton-Tucker would knock down another shot from deep as the Jazz jumped out to a quick 10-7 advantage.
Things changed quickly as the Suns responded with a 16-4 run. Devin Booker, who has always played well in Salt Lake City, scored the first five points of the run as Utah struggled to slow Phoenix down in transition.
After Johnny Juzang ended the run, the Suns kept attacking as they stretched the lead to 10. Markkanen checked into the game late in the first and helped steady the Jazz on offense, but Phoenix kept rolling along.
Utah trailed 37-26 after one.
The Suns kept the pressure up to start the second, stretching their lead to 13 with eight minutes left in the half. But the Jazz never wavered, and the switch to a zone defense frustrated Phoenix on offense.
Meanwhile, beginning with a Jarrell Brantley bucket, Utah found a rhythm on offense and chipped away at the deficit. His bucket started a quick 6-0 run that eventually turned into a larger 17-3 run as the Jazz took a 50-49 lead with just over two minutes. Kessler was the real catalyst for Utah, making a big difference on both ends of the court.
However, Phoenix closed strong as threes by Damian Lee and Terrance Ross capped an 8-2 run to the quarter.
Utah trailed 57-52 at the break.
The Jazz came out strong to start the second half, as buckets by Markkanen and Kessler cut the deficit to one less than a minute in. The teams would exchange buckets for the next few minutes as the physicality picked up — including Horton-Tucker being thrown down by Chris Paul with no whistle, a noncall that had Hardy incensed.
A Markkanen dunk in transition cut the deficit to one again before Ochai Agbaji, following a Suns bucket, knocked down a deep three to tie it at 63. However, Phoenix responded with a 7-0 run, forcing a Hardy timeout.
Again, the Jazz refused to go away as a 10-0 run of their own — capped off by back-to-back Agbaji threes — gave Utah a three-point lead with just over five to go in the quarter. After Phoenix tied things up at 78, Juzang knocked down a corner three for the lead — but the Suns would end the quarter on a 6-0 run.
Utah trailed 84-81 heading to the fourth.
The Suns came out firing to begin the final 12 minutes, going on a quick 7-0 run to push their lead to double digits just two minutes in. Utah would try to close the gap, but Phoenix's lead reached 14 with just over six minutes to play.
The Jazz would cut the deficit to 13 multiple times in the final minutes but couldn't get the key stops, coming up short in the end.
“I feel for our guys tonight because they put in a lot of work,” Hardy said. “Their intensity and their willingness to do it together every night is something I’m very proud of. I’m frustrated for them. … They came into tonight’s game with a good mindset.”
Horton-Tucker added 16 points, eight assists, and eight rebounds, while Kelly Olynyk chipped in 10 points, seven assists, and seven rebounds. Agbaji finished with nine points (3-of-5 from deep), and Kris Dunn added nine points and five assists.
Utah has Tuesday off before heading east for a three-game road trip — beginning with San Antonio on Wednesday night.