“Season Of Close Games” | Markkanen And Kessler’s Double-Doubles Power Utah Down The Stretch Against Toronto

Surprise, surprise – Utah found themselves in another tight game late in the fourth.

After a tense and exciting last 12 minutes, which saw impressive shot and offensive creations on both sides, the Jazz had the last word. A rebound from Walker Kessler followed by free throws from Mike Conley secured the 131-128 win over Toronto on Wednesday night.

“A good team win against a hard-playing, really physical team,” said head coach Will Hardy after the game. “Six guys in double digits, those nights are always indicators to me that a lot of guys have been making games. The lads played well, I found our ball movement enormous. … We’re giving ourselves a chance in a season of tight games.”

After being nominated for the 2023 Jordan Rising Stars Game on Tuesday, Kessler dominated Wednesday night against the smaller Raptors.

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

Kessler also became the second fastest jazz player to reach 100 career blocks, in 50 games. One of the greatest blockers of all time, Mark Eaton hit 100 blocks in just 48 games.

While Kessler learns his All-Star fate on Tuesday, Lauri Markkanen will learn his fate on Thursday when reserves for the All-Star game are announced later tonight. But if Wednesday was Markkanen’s last chance to impress the selection committee, consider it a successful performance.

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

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

“First of all, none of us hopes… we all EXPECT Lauri to be an All-Star,” Hardy said. “Tomorrow night will be fun.”

Though 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 pretty much the same.

He finished the season with a season-high 19 points in 5-of-8 shooting and added 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 making most of the headlines — and rightly so — Conley remains arguably Utah’s most important player. His reassuring demeanor in the clutch, always making sure the Jazz doesn’t rush and go on the offensive, can’t be underestimated.

“Mike was such a support for us late in the games,” Hardy said of Conley. “He and I have developed very good communication about what we want to do late in the game and he’s done a great job of relaying that to the team. … His decision-making continues to be great.”

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

He wasn’t the only Jazz player to get off to a good start, as Utah looked like a rested team and started a 10-0 run to lead 10-2 early on. With Kessler on the defensive, the Jazz continued to push the pace and led by as much as 12 points late in the first round from a Collin Sexton three-pointer.

But the Raptors would fight back and end the quarter with a 7-0 run after two dunks by Chris Boucher.

The Jazz led 31-26 after one.

After a Toronto bucket early in the second game, the Jazz found their rhythm again as Malik Beasley and Sexton scored back-to-back threes while Utah went on a 12-2 run.

Utah’s lead stayed in double digits for the rest of the quarter, with a Clarkson three giving the Jazz a 60-47 advantage with just over threes to play in the half. But then the Raptors got behind the game of Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakim.

A quick 10-0 run over the next two minutes reduced Utah’s lead to three and things went quiet in Vivint Arena. But Markkanen answered the call, as he has done all season, with a personal 5-0 run – before Toronto ended the half with a three-pointer from Gary Trent Jr.

At the break, the Jazz led 65:60.

Unhappy with Utah’s start in third, Hardy called for a timeout after Toronto’s 13-6 run put the Jazz into their first deficit since the game’s first bucket. Although Kessler denied nearly every shot in the paint, the Raptors made a living dominating the offensive glass.

The time-out was well-timed as Clarkson and Markkanen smashed down three consecutive three-pointers on the next two possessions to regain the lead. The teams then battled back and forth for the remainder of the quarter, neither being able to retreat.

An 8-2 run by Utah — with five points from Markkanen — gave the Jazz a six-point lead with just under five points left in the quarter. But Toronto fought on, reducing the deficit to one after another dunk from Boucher. Utah responded and finished the quarter strong when a Clarkson three turned the momentum back towards Jazz.

Utah led 96-92 after three.

It was another slow start for the Jazz as Toronto started the fourth with a 6-0 run to take the lead in under three minutes – but this time Ochai Agbaji responded with back-to-back threes while the Jazz halfway with four led through the quarter.

The back-and-forth started as the Raptors regained the lead after a 5-0 run, but the Jazz answered. A Markkanen three-pointer capped a dominating stretch by him and Kessler as Utah rallied a 9-0 run to lead 113-105 with 4-10 to go.

Toronto refused to go, knocking down four three-pointers in the space of three minutes – but the Jazz responded to every offensive possession. Whether it was Conley with a one, Clarkson with a three, or Markkanen with a big bucket, the Jazz got on the clutch when needed to carve out the win.

“This game is exactly what we talked about before the game,” Hardy said. “Our focus in the second half was maintaining our space, making early decisions, not dribbling too hard and rebounding 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 adjusted their physicality.”

Clarkson finished with a very quiet 23 points, 17 of them in the second half, while adding five assists and two rebounds. Beasley and Sexton led 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 7:00 PM MT