SALT LAKE CITY — Maybe we shouldn’t be all that surprised by the Utah Jazz’s 121-105 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday night.
Maybe we should stop being shocked that the Jazz built a 20-point lead, defended like the dickens, hit a bushel of 3-pointers, racked up a bunch of assists on their made baskets and had the game wrapped with five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
Maybe, this is just who the Jazz are at the moment.
Of course, this can all change. This is your daily disclaimer that it can all unravel at any point. But, the Jazz and the Milwaukee Bucks are the only two teams in the league with six wins. The Jazz are an offensive machine, scoring more than 117 points per night. The Jazz have been one of the most versatile teams in basketball.
This just might be who they are.
That doesn’t mean they won’t hit rough spots. And that doesn’t mean the sample size isn’t still minuscule. But it’s been eight games and the Jazz have played almost sublime basketball in at least five of them. For eight games, more often than not, they are playing a beautiful brand of hoop.
Here are some thoughts on Monday night’s win, a victory in which they put six players in double-figure scoring.
Markkanen’s efficient offense
The beauty of Lauri Markkanen this season is that he isn’t putting stress on Utah’s offense in order to supply his own individual offense. The forward scored a team-high 31 points on Monday night. He took 15 shots to get there. He made 11 of those 15 shots. He went 4-of-5 from 3-point range. He made all of his free-throws.
He didn’t commandeer the offense in order to get that done. The ball never stopped moving. The spacing was never compromised. We’ve said it over and over in this space, but Markkanen has been a revelation for the Jazz this season. Chicago Bulls fans have to be sick watching Markkanen turn into this. Cleveland Cavaliers fans are sleeping much easier because Markkanen was the piece that got them Donovan Mitchell, and Mitchell is currently playing at an MVP level.
But Jazz fans have to be jumping over the moon. We knew Markkanen was a solid pro, only 25 years old, coming off a nice season in Cleveland. We saw how well he played in EuroBasket over the summer, and we thought Markkanen could take a nice leap if some of the stuff he did overseas was able to translate.
This? Nobody expected this. Not even the Jazz, who did the Mitchell deal with the Cavaliers partly because Markkanen was included. So, here are some of the things he’s doing that nobody has really seen.
He’s defending at a very high level. He’s causing mismatch after mismatch offensively. He’s playing all three frontcourt spots, depending on where his biggest advantage is at the moment. He’s rebounding at a high level. His points are impactful. He’s scoring in every way. He’s making shots at all three levels. He’s getting out into transition. He’s getting to the free-throw line. If he plays at this level for the entire season, Markkanen will have put together the best small forward season the Jazz have seen since Gordon Hayward in 2016-2017, when Hayward was an All-Star and one of the better two-way players in the league. Markkanen is trending in that direction.
Most importantly, Markkanen is a foundational piece. In what is a fact-finding season for the Jazz, they now know that they want Markkanen around for the long haul. As highly as the front office thought of him when they traded for him, the Jazz may have unwittingly stumbled upon a star who is still a year or two away from entering the prime of his career. No matter how the season turns out from a wins and losses standpoint, Markkanen’s emergence may turn out to be Utah’s biggest win.
No backing down
On Monday night, the Jazz passed a test that they failed repeatedly last season.
About midway through the third quarter, Memphis forward and resident mixer Dillon Brooks fouled Mike Conley by the midcourt sideline. Brooks then got up, stood over Conley, snarled and talked smack. He then stepped over Conley, earning himself a technical foul and the ire of the crowd at Vivint Arena.
Then, Memphis turned up from an energy standpoint. They became more physical and resolute defensively. They became more resilient on both ends of the floor. As questionable as Brooks’ play was, there was no question that the Grizzlies fed from it. Soon, a nearly 20-point lead dwindled to 10. The crowd, having seen this so many times from the most previous Jazz team, groaned in anticipation of a Memphis rally.
Utah coach Will Hardy called time. He looked everyone on his team in the eye. And then he told them to calm down, stay within the game and not forget what got them to the point of having a sizable lead.
“Everyone is going to talk, that’s a part of the game,” Hardy said. “But we didn’t want to forget what was most important at the moment. We didn’t want that to get away from us.”
Brooks clearly tried to punk the Jazz on Monday night. As ugly as the incident with Conley looked, it was an act. Conley was Brooks’ vet in Memphis, the one who showed him the ropes. The two remain close friends to this day. Indeed, Conley laughed about the incident in the locker room following the game. He knew the incident wasn’t going to get completely out of control. This is what Brooks does. He will do anything he can to get his team back into a game. You almost have to respect that kind of effort.
On this night, the Jazz showed toughness, when on so many nights a year ago they folded when a team tried to manhandle them. On this night, the Jazz showed poise. They came back. They ran their offense. They defended and generated stops defensively. Before they knew it, they had rebuilt a 21 point lead. For all intents and purposes, that third quarter run ended the game. When the Jazz stood up to the bullying, the Grizzlies on this night ran out of tactical answers. It wasn’t easy. It required a timeout. But, the Jazz were able to accomplish it.
The thing everyone overlooked
In the superstar era, so many teams have put together top-heavy rosters with great players at the top of the line. The flip side to this is getting to the fifth and sixth player on a roster usually means a steep decline in play.
The Jazz are a team right now without a star player. But, their depth right now is substantial as any team in the league. Malik Beasley is probably Utah’s seventh best player. If you put him on the Los Angeles Lakers tomorrow, he would arguably be the third best player. Collin Sexton comes off the bench. He averaged 24 points a game two seasons ago.
Utah is deep and talented. The Jazz have 11 legitimate rotation players at the moment. Even rookie Ochai Agbaji has acquitted himself very well in the minutes he’s been given.
When you combine this with the coaching that’s gone on early in the season — the coaching has been nothing short of magnificent — you can see why the Jazz are 6-2 early on.
It’s hard to believe this is sustainable. We keep harping on how brutal Utah’s schedule is, but it’s absolutely brutal all the way through the new year. We keep harping on the lack of a star player, but there’s no star player on the roster.
But, what if Markkanen is actually a star player? What if wins over Memphis, Minnesota, Denver and New Orleans aren’t a fluke. What if… what if the Jazz are actually… good?
Nah. It’s still too early for that. We are just eight games in.
In a regular season format, depth and great coaching can win you a lot of games. The Jazz are currently rolling out lineups for 48 minutes that don’t have a lot of drop off. Because of the coaching, they are spacing teams to death. They have so many good shooters that it’s difficult to account for them all. They have so many guys who can handle the ball and get into the lane off the dribble, that it’s difficult for opponents to match up with them.
They are very hard to play against. That’s why they are 6-2 so far.
(Photo of Lauri Markkanen: Garrett Ellwood / NBAE via Getty Images)