Markkanen, Kessler Carry Jazz Past Thunder In Overtime

Feb 23, 2023, 11:11 PM | Updated: Feb 24, 2023, 10:11 am

SALT LAKE CITY – Lauri Markkanen and Walker Kessler proved to be too much for the Oklahoma City Thunder to handle in a 120-119 Utah Jazz win.

Markkanen made three free throws with 4.6 seconds left in overtime, part of his game-high 43 points as the Jazz oustlasted a talented Thunder roster.

Kessler added seven points, 18 rebounds, and seven blocks as the Jazz opened their three-game homestand with a win.

Jazz Answer First Post-All-Star Test

The Jazz have been plagued by the question all season; when will they start to focus more on solidifying a top-10 draft pick, rather than winning games?

If Thursday’s performance is any indication, it simply may not happen.

The Jazz had several opportunities to fade away against the Thunder but repeatedly answered with huge plays from Markkanen and Kessler to earn the win.

Markkanen scored 24 points in the fourth quarter and overtime as he repeatedly attacked the rim to finish over the smaller Thunder lineup.

Kessler, meanwhile, pulled down two key offensive rebounds and tied the game at 106 with four seconds left in regulation.

On the ensuing Thunder possession, Kessler sent the game to overtime by blocking an Isaiah Joe layup as time expired.

“The team wants to play in a way that we’re proud of and that the fans are proud of,” Will Hardy said.

With the win, the Jazz took a half-game lead over the Thunder for the 10th seed in the Western Conference standings.

The two teams will face each other three more times over the final 21 games of the season, including twice next week in Oklahoma City.

Kessler The Unicorn

After helping the Jazz win the Skills Challenge at All-Star Saturday night with an event-clinching corner three, Walker Kessler knocked down his first career regular-season three-point attempt early in the first quarter against the Thunder.

Jazz coach Will Hardy amitted after the game that the rookie’s shot in the Skills Challenge played a role in the decision to draw up the play for Kessler to open the game.

“Yes, the first play was designed for Walker to shoot a three. Yes, he bullied me into it at All-Star Weekend when he made that three in the skills competition,” Hardy joked. “And yes, I’m very happy that it went in even though I may have created a monster.”

Coming out of high school, Kessler was marketed as a floor-spacing, offensive-minded big man but rapidly evolved into one of the dominant defensive forces in college at both North Carolina and Auburn.

While his strong defensive presence has carried over to the NBA, the rookie center has also proven to be a viable offensive threat as a vertical floor spacer. He’s also proven to have better finishing skills in his first 60 games in the NBA than Rudy Gobert was able to show in nine seasons in Utah.

But to truly unlock his All-Star potential, and to avoid being limited to the same pitfalls that felled Gobert in the postseason, three-point shooting will have to factor into his future.

Will Hardy has never ruled out Kessler as a three-point shooter, but rather said the Jazz would prefer to focus on developing the rookie’s “fastball” i.e. rebounding, screen setting, and shot blocking, or, the things that he has to do most regularly to stay on the floor.

And, to the Jazz coaching staff’s credit, it was Kessler’s rebounding and shot blocking that sent the game to overtime.

But, if the Jazz are confident that Kessler has a grasp on those “fastball” areas of his game, he may see more three-point attempts as the season trickles to a close.

Agbaji Finding Confidence In His Shot

While Kessler has yet to miss a three-point line in his young career, Ochai Agbaji doesn’t seem to be far behind.

The other Jazz rookie knocked down 3-8 attempts against the Thunder and is now shooting 46 percent from the three-point line since entering the lineup full-time in early January.

It’s a radical turnaround for Agbaji after struggling to knock down shots early in the season as he looked to find his footing in the NBA.

The rookie credited his improved shooting with a more solidifed spot in the team’s rotation.

“Getting game reps, getting the feel because it’s really hard to emulate shooting in the game,” Agbaji said. “As much as you can practice it’s just not the same feeling.”

After having just one multi-three game in his first 17 apperances, Agbaji has done it eight of his last 21 players.

“He’s not shooting for his life on every shot,” Hardy said. “When you’re early in the season and you’re not really in the rotation and you don’t get an opportunity to go in the game, you feel like every ball you shoot is to stay in.”

Jazz Next Broadcast

The Utah Jazz and San Antonio SPurs will tip off at 7 pm MT in Salt Lake City on Saturday. The game will be televised on AT&T SportsNet and can be heard on 97.5 The KSL Sports Zone. It can also be streamed on DirecTV Stream and FuboTV.

Download the new & improved KSL Sports app from Utah’s sports leader. You can stream live radio, video and stay up to date on all of your favorite teams.

Ben Anderson is the Utah Jazz insider for KSL Sports and the co-host of Jake and Ben from 10-12p with Jake Scott on 97.5 The KSL Sports Zone. Find Ben on Twitter at @BensHoops or on Instagram @BensHoops.

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Markkanen, Kessler Carry Jazz Past Thunder In Overtime