After a three-day break in which the Jazz were able to get some much-needed practice time and recovery for their bodies, Utah found itself locked in battle with Toronto late in the fourth quarter Wednesday night.
Good thing the Jazz got the time to rest and recover because when much came to shove in the clutch, it was Utah who was making the winning plays. Physical defense and impressive shotmaking helped the Jazz prevail and walk away with a 131-128 victory over the Raptors.
"A good team win against a hard-playing, really physical team," head coach Will Hardy said postgame. "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."
Here are five things to know following the win:
1.) Blocker Kessler's Special Night
After being named to the 2023 Jordan Rising Stars Game on Tuesday, Walker Kessler was impressive 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, 14 rebounds, and seven blocks. His six blocks in the opening quarter were the most by anybody in the league this season.
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.
While Kessler continues to dominate, one has to wonder if he might be the one who breaks Utah's triple-double curse? It has been 5,467 days since a Jazz player last recorded a triple-double in the regular season — a 22-point, 11-rebound, 10-assist performance from Carlos Boozer. Although it's still early in his career, it's safe to say that Kessler may just be the person to break through for the Jazz.
2.) Depth Is The Star Of The Night
While there were outstanding individual performances from several players on Wednesday, the night's real star came from the Jazz as a whole. Their depth was fully displayed as six players scored in double figures, led by Lauri Markkanen's 28 points and Kessler's 17.
Jordan Clarkson finished with an extremely quiet 23 points, shooting 8-of-17 from the floor and 5-for-12 from deep. Mike Conley chipped in a season-high 19 points. But where the Jazz really differentiate from many of their opponents is their depth coming off the bench — and that's where Collin Sexton and Malik Beasley shined brightest.
Sexton dropped 10 of his 12 points in the first quarter, giving the Jazz the spark they needed. Malik Beasley finished with 14 points on 4-for-11 from deep, being the long ball threat the Jazz needed.
"Six guys in double figures, those nights are always indicators to me that a lot of guys were making plays," Hardy said. "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."
3.) Markkanen Finds Out His Fate On Thursday
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.
4.) Conley A Dominant Floor General
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. "He and I have developed a very good communication about what we would like to do, and he does a good job communicating that to the team and getting them organized. … His decision-making continues to be great late in games."
5.) Stats Anomaly
If one were to look at a key number of stats that usually determine whether a team wins or loses in the NBA, the Jazz should've been run out of Vivint Arena by the Raptors on Wednesday.
Toronto took 110 shots on the night, 27 more than Utah's 83 field goal attempts. The Raptors also out-rebounded the Jazz 52-49 but grabbed a season-high 25 offensive rebounds. They won the turnover battle 16-8 and finished with 11 steals, scoring more fast break points and points in the paint.
So how on earth did the Jazz not just get beatdown but somehow walk away with their seventh victory in their past 10 games?
To put it easily, Utah was the significantly more efficient team on the night.
The Jazz outscored the Raptors by 21 from beyond the arc while shooting a ridiculous 75% (27-for-36) on shots inside the three-point line. Combine that with an impressive 26-of-30 showing from the free throw line, and Utah somehow emerged victorious.