Estimated read time: 4-5
SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz played its first home game of the month on Saturday; it just didn’t always sound like that at Vivint Arena when the Boston Celtics rolled into Salt Lake CIty.
“Let’s go Celtics!” chants were frequent as the Celtics grew a big lead in the first half. Boston’s made buckets were greeted with loud cheers, and even Jazz fans’ cheers were drowned out with boos.
At least they were until Ochai Agbaji drilled a wing 3-pointer with 1:31 remaining in the game; and when Lauri Markkanen hit a 3-pointer with 1:11 left in the game; and when Talen Horton-Tucker made a go-ahead layup in the final minute; and, finally, when Walker Kessler also made a game-winning block in the final seconds.
Each play made it sound like a home game again.
In the end, the Jazz overcame a 19-point deficit and a surprisingly vocal Boston fan base to top the Celtics 118-117 on Saturday at Vivint Arena.
As for the key plays: They were all made by players the Jazz see as potential long-term pieces of the team.
“You can’t manufacture this training,” Jazz head coach Will Hardy said. “You can’t simulate coming down the stretch of the game against one of the best teams in the NBA. A loud arena, the pressure, the scramble, the communication — you can’t simulate playing a team with that quality in a close game. That stuff is so big for the growth of our team, and, for sure, our young players.”
The shot by Markkanen — who had 28 points, which included 12 in the fourth quarter, and 10 rebounds to lead the Jazz — was expected at this point in the season. The one by Agbaji? That one raised some eyebrows. Agbaji got the ball out off a dribble and let it fly … in the final minutes … with the game on the line.
“That was the biggest moment for me,” Hardy said. “The fact that he took that shot — much less made the shot — that he took that shot is a huge part of growth. I don’t think a month ago he even looked at the basket in that situation.”
Heck, two months ago, he was hardly even playing. And three months ago, he was still bouncing back and forth between the Jazz and the G League. Now, he’s excelling in high-stakes games — on Saturday, he scored 16 points and was 4-for-8 from the 3-point line — all while being asked to guard the top players in the world.
It’s been quite the jump, and one that has excited his Jazz teammates and coaches.
“He’s been growing every single day. He works his butt off,” Kelly Olynyk said. “Just to see his development in terms of his confidence, it’s obvious. … The way he can play both ends of the floor. He’s been hugely defensively guarding guys, moving his feet, being physical; and then offensively, knocking down shots and putting the ball on the floor, getting out in transition, getting on the rim. That’s been huge for us. He’s gonna only get better. And he has a lot of room for growth.”
The same goes for Kessler, Horton-Tucker, and even Markkanen, who continues to make a strong case for a spot on all-NBA.
On Saturday, the Jazz went to a trap zone to take the ball out of Jayson Tatum’s hands; they wanted someone — anyone — not named Tatum to beat them.
And Grant Williams nearly did.
Williams scored 23 points on a career-high seven 3-pointers; Williams’ final shot, though, was swatted away by Kessler.
Williams caught the ball cutting to the basket and tried to get Kessler up with a shot fake — something he has been prone to go for this season — but the rookie stayed down and easily swatted Williams’ layup attempt away to seal the game.
The Jazz improved to 34-36 on the season and climbed back into play-in position with 12 games left in the regular season.
“Ochai’s 3 was a massive play for us, obviously. Walker continuing to be an anchor defensively, rebounding down the stretch, his late block on Grant Williams — to be in that moment and to be responsible for executing to try to win a game, that’s really important for us,” Hardy said. “It’s important for us today to try to win this game, but it’s also going to be really important for us moving forward.”