Jazz make progress: hold Trail Blazers under 100 points, win 2 straight

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In the bowels of the Delta Center, Will Hardy entered the room to have his typical postgame chat with his assistant coaches. The Utah Jazz had just beaten the Portland Trail Blazers 115-99, improving to a 2-0 record in Group A of the NBA’s In-Season Tournament. Hardy looked at the stat sheet. The assistants looked back at him, knowing that the money line was imminent.

And then it happened.

“Did we just hold a team to under 100 points?” Hardy asked.

Indeed the Jazz did, for the first time in Hardy’s tenure as head coach. In a span of almost 100 games, the Utah Jazz finally stopped a team from reaching the century mark.

In this era of the NBA, the pace and space combined with the talent of the league make it more difficult than ever to stop teams from scoring. But, in a season plus some, the Jazz not accomplishing this at least once qualified as … an accomplishment. Seriously, in almost 100 games, you should at least get one of those by osmosis. You should catch a team on a bad shooting night. Or you should catch a team having injury issues … or something.

But, the Jazz did it on Tuesday night, won a game handily, improved their standing in the tournament and won consecutive games for the first time this season. In a year where the Jazz began the schedule losing seven of their first nine, the last two games — wins over Memphis and Portland — signify progress.

It’s easy to roll your eyes at the level of competition the Jazz have gotten the best of. Neither the Grizzlies nor the Trail Blazers are good teams. Both are dealing with significant injury issues. Both are scratching and clawing to try and get wins while being at a talent deficit almost every night.

That being said, Utah looked like a team that could challenge for worst in the league during its first nine games. The offense looked clunky with little spacing and a love for turning the ball over in chunks. The defense looked like a wet paper bag, and couldn’t stop anyone. A trip to the Midwest produced three losses in four games and more questions than answers. The Jazz looked lost and rudderless in too many important spots.

What’s different these last few games? Pointing to the competition is certainly fair, for all of the reasons listed above. But it can’t be ignored that the Jazz are playing better basketball and seem to be figuring some things out. The NBA is volatile, which means two matchups against the Phoenix Suns this weekend, followed by a matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers early next week, could paint a different picture.

Hardy knows this, which is why he knows with a young roster, that small pockets of wins are ones that need to be appreciated. If nothing else, it means the message is getting through.

“It’s good to see the guys starting to have some success,” Hardy said. “But I hope the team isn’t satisfied with success. I want them to enjoy this win tonight, and I want them to come back tomorrow and be ready to work.”

There are a few things that are working for the Jazz.

The starting lineup was forced to change with second-year center Walker Kessler out with an elbow injury, and Hardy finally found a combination that works. Rookie Keyonte George has been a revelation at point guard, in terms of getting guys into the correct spots, running the offense like a veteran and allowing people like Jordan Clarkson and Lauri Markkanen to do what they do best offensively. In three starts, George has 27 assists and five turnovers. And on Tuesday night, he scored a career-high 15 points, a sign that his offense from a scoring standpoint is starting to awaken.

It goes a bit deeper than that. John Collins moving to the center spot has unlocked both him individually and the offense as a whole. The spacing issues of the opening weeks of the season are no longer there. Collins is shaking loose in the pick-and-roll game, playing above the rim, and most importantly stretching defenses by making 3-point shots. Second-year forward Ochai Agbaji is starting to emerge as a key role player and glue guy. The Jazz are having him guard the best player on the opposition, and he’s making 3s from catch and shoot, plus getting into transition.

Utah has sacrificed size with the lineup changes. But the Jazz have become a faster team and a more efficient team. They have become a better team on both ends if a small sample size is to be trusted. But getting stops on the defensive end is clearly a focus and clearly a notable thing for Utah. Hardy said he wants the Jazz to lean into their speed defensively, which means flying around the floor and trying to wreak havoc and cause turnovers. They are rotating. They are rebounding in packs. They are working diligently to keep the ball in front of them on the perimeter.

In some ways, Kessler going down to injury was like stripping Linus of his comfort blanket. Kessler is one of the best rim protectors in the league, and not having him means being a little more exposed defensively. Without Kessler, the Jazz are playing much better defensively as a team, but they are also playing better on an individual level.

A more apt test of this will come Friday night when Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal and the rest of the Phoenix Suns roll into Salt Lake City. But, you take the results when you can and where you can. And for the Jazz, after how they looked in the first nine games, the last two have offered a glimpse into what Hardy wants it to look like.

“You give yourself chances to win by playing defense,” Markkanen said. “We know that good defense is something we have to work on, and it’s something that we have to get better at. We are trying to apply ourselves on that end of the floor.”

(Photo of Lauri Markkanen going to the basket against Portland: Alex Goodlett / Getty Images)

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