Jazz learn important late-game lessons in back-to-back losses to Suns

SALT LAKE CITY — Lauri Markkanen and Jordan Clarkson sat at their locker room stalls on Sunday night, watching the replay of the final play of the Utah Jazz’s 140-137 double-overtime loss to the Phoenix Suns on their phones, going back and forth with their opinion of the foul call and subsequent review and overturn.

Obviously, the Jazz didn’t agree with the successful Suns challenge of Kevin Durant’s foul that would go on to end the game. Utah head coach Will Hardy all but declined to answer in the postgame news conference, saying that “Christmas time is around the corner, so I’d rather save my money.” Markkanen disagreed with the call, as did forward John Collins when he was asked.

But at the end of the night, when they thought that Markkanen would be going to the free-throw line for the opportunity to send the game into a third extra session, the Jazz could only accept what became their ninth loss of the season. It was a brutal way to lose a contest that lasted 58 minutes. The Jazz surrendered 39 points and a near triple-double to Durant. They allowed the Suns 18 3-point makes. They looked dead in the proverbial water several times down the stretch. But they looked a Suns team that features one of the best offenses in the NBA in the eye.

In a few months, or a year from now, Sunday night at the Delta Center will be just another blip, a loss in regular season-game No. 13 of 82. But by any professional basketball player’s standard, this loss hurt a little more than most.

“I thought I was just about to get ready to shoot free-throws and try and keep the game going,” Markkanen said. “I thought Kevin got ball, but I thought he hit my left arm. I didn’t know if they were looking at body contact. I guess that’s the decision they made, and I have to live with it.”

There are things for both teams to take away from the Suns’ two-game miniseries sweep. The Suns are now on a season-high three game winning streak having come to Utah on the heels of a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, and look as comfortable offensively as they have this season. Both wins over Utah came down to clutch minutes, and the Suns looked comfortable in the sets they ran in the most important possessions of each game. Of course, it helps that Durant and Devin Booker are both healthy and in uniform, but the Suns looked connected this weekend. They looked like they knew where shots were coming from.

On Friday night, in the Suns’ 131-128 win, the Jazz played a lot of conventional man-to-man defense down the stretch, which allowed Durant (38 points) to take over as a scorer. On Sunday night, when Utah began double-teaming all over the floor in an attempt to get the ball out of Durant’s hands, Eric Gordon and Grayson Allen took turns knocking down open jumpers.

That’s the beauty of this Phoenix team. It’s going to be unconventional. It’s not a defensive roster, so if the Suns are to win a title, they are going to have to win it on the offensive end. They also need to be durable in the process, with players such as Durant, Booker and Bradley Beal (currently out with a back injury) who have not been in the past. Can the Suns get enough defensive stops in a playoff setting to make the offense matter? They have a chance to be one of the best teams in NBA history on the offensive end.

That the Jazz narrowly lost both games signifies progress. Yes, Utah is 4-9 on the year. Yes, after winning consecutive games  for the first time this season – against the Grizzlies and Trail Blazers – the Jazz lost a pair. And yes, the Jazz are in a spot where they need to start figuring a way to win some games.

But after not playing well for much of the early part of the schedule, they are playing a lot better on both ends of the floor. They have become a lot more difficult to guard offensively and have become scrappier and more unyielding on defense. Markkanen scored 38 points, grabbed 17 rebounds and played Durant to a near draw on Sunday. Two weeks ago, the Jazz looked incompetent. Heading into Tuesday night’s game at the Los Angeles Lakers, the Jazz have looked a lot more competitive, particularly since inserting rookie Keyonte George into the starting lineup at point guard.

“The end of the game felt like a playoff game,” Hardy said. “These moments for Keyonte are priceless. I want him to win a championship in his time with the Jazz, and playing in this kind of game against that kind of team, you can’t place a value on it. I think we’re improving. I think the way we played these two games against the Suns shows how much we are improving.”

While most will focus on is the foul call, and then the subsequent review and successful challenge, the Jazz have to figure out how to take their improved play and translate it to wins. The biggest difference between the Jazz and the Suns during the two games was the offense down the stretch. The Suns knew exactly what they were going to do in the waning moments, and the Jazz struggled to get into sets and to find offense when it mattered the most.



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On Sunday night, Utah scratched and clawed to find the baskets needed to extend the game. Markkanen’s rebound and basket forced the initial overtime. Collin Sexton’s rebound and hoop forced double overtime. But, the vast majority of the clutch moments looked smooth on the Suns’ end and disjointed on the Jazz’s.

From one perspective, it’s folly to think a young and callow Utah roster is going to measure up in clutch moments against a Durant or a Booker. But another way of looking at it is the Jazz have to learn how to win in order to take a step in the Western Conference. Competing is one thing, but you are largely what your record says you are. And that means the Jazz are a team trying to figure out where their tangible progress is going to come from.

The NBA’s game of the year may have been played in Salt Lake City on Sunday night. Now, the principals involved will go their different ways, after a contest that had just about everything.

(Photo of Kevin Durant and Lauri Markkanen: Chris Nicoll / USA Today)

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