Clutch Rookies Push Jazz Past Celtics

Mar 18, 2023, 11:06 PM | Updated: Mar 20, 2023, 12:41 pm

SALT LAKE CITY – After a long four-day hiatus, the Utah Jazz downed the Boston Celtics 118-117 thanks to huge plays from rookies Walker Kessler and Ocahi Agbaji.

While Lauri Markkanen led the Jazz with a 28-point, 10-rebound double-double, it was Kessler (12 points, 14 rebounds, three blocks) and Agbaji (16 points, 4-8 three-point shooting) that stole the show.

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Jazz Rookies Come Up Clutch In Win

Thinking back to the preseason, it would have been difficult to imagine a scenario where the Jazz had their two highest-value rookies making huge plays in the final minutes of a game against a championship contender while amid a playoff race in late March.

And yet, on March 18, sitting just a half-game back of the Western Conference Play-In tournament, Ochai Agbaji and Walker Kessler made game-winning plays in the final two minutes of a game against the reigning Eastern Conference champions.

With 93 seconds left in the game and the Jazz trailing 114-110, Agbaji comfortably stepped into a deep three-point shot and found nothing but the bottom of the net.

It was a remarkable shot for a player who was completely out of the rotation to open the season and didn’t start seeing regular minutes until January.

It’s even more impressive considering that the last time Agbaji took the floor — Monday night in Miami — he blew a chance to send the game to overtime when he missed an easy dump-off pass to Kessler for a dunk that would have tied the game with six seconds left to play.

“Next play, next game mentality,” Agbaji said of his bounce-back against the Celtics. “I’ve got to be better in that aspect closing games and making those decisions.”

After Agbaji’s three, the two teams traded threes on ensuing possessions before Talen Horton-Tucker gave the Jazz a 118-117 lead with 35 seconds left to play.

That’s when Kessler, the Jazz’s other standout rookie stepped up.

The Celtics had the ball down one with five seconds left to play. Guard Malcolm Brogdon inbounded the ball to Grant Williams in the midrange, who had a decent look at a potential game-winner.

Instead, Williams drove into the heart of the Jazz defense where Kessler was waiting to erase his shot, sending the ball back to half-court as the game clock expired.

“I figured he was probably going to shot fake, [so I] kind of stayed down and tried to time it as best I could,” Kessler said. “I got a hand on it, so worked out.”

While many expected the two rookies to have a long leash to make mistakes in low-leverage games this season, Kessler and Agbaji are earning crucial developmental opportunities in the heart of a playoff race, and the Jazz coaches are relishing the opportunity.

“This is a priceless experience for them, you can’t manufacture this in a training setting,” coach Will Hardy said.

“No matter how high we try to make the stakes at practice, no matter how loud we turn the music up, you can’t simulate coming down the stretch of a game against one of the best teams in the NBA with a loud arena, the pressure, the scramble, the communication — you can’t simulate playing a team of that quality in a close game.”

There’s a long way to go before the end of the season, and the final grades of the season have yet to be determined. But with Kessler and Agbaji already making enormous plays to help the Jazz win games this early in their NBA careers, they’ve aced their first-year auditions in Utah.

Getting To Know Back Jarrell Brantley

It’s not uncommon for fans (and err… the media) to think they know more about their favorite players than a team’s actual NBA head coach. And almost always, they’re wrong.

The thousand of hours spent scouting players across the league, coaching them, traveling with them, then watching them practice reveals a far-fuller picture of what each individual can actually offer a roster.

But with Jarrell Brantley returning to Utah, Jazz fans likely are more familiar with the latest 10-day signee than the head coach.

“I met Jarrell for the first time this morning, he’s about six-foot-five, really long arms. and he shot the ball well in Australia this year,” Hardy joked about his still blossoming relationship with the newest Jazzman.

Though Hardy may not have the same familiarity with Brantley that Jazz fans do, he is correct that Brantley shot the ball well this past season playing for the New Zealand Breakers in the NBL (40 percent on 4.8 attempts per game).

Brantley was named team MVP for the Breakers having averaged 16.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 1.7 assists, and was named the club’s MVP having led the squad to the NBL Finals where they fell 3-2 to the Sydney Kings.

Though Brantley didn’t see the floor against Boston, Hardy said he was held in high regard within the team.

“Everybody in the Utah Jazz organization speaks incredibly highly of him,” Hardy said. “His character as a person, his work ethic. I’m excited to get to know him more.”

Where Do Jazz Sit In The Overall Standings?

With the win over the Celtics, the Jazz jumped into tenth place in the Western Conference, leaping the Los Angeles Lakers and pulling into a three-way tie with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Minnesota Timberwolves.

Here’s where the Jazz sit in the standings both in regards to the Western Conference Playoff race and in the overall league standings which will determine their final draft position.

Looking league-wide, the Chicago Bulls beat the Miami Heat, moving to 33-37 on the season and remain within one game of the Jazz in the standings.

The Bulls have one of the league’s 10-most difficult schedules remaining so a win over a likely playoff team like Miami could be big to close the year.

The Toronto Raptors also earned a key win in the East, beating the Minnesota Timberwolves and stay one game ahead of the Jazz in the league standings.

The Raptors have the sixth-toughest schedule with 11 games remaining in the season.

Elsewhere, the Orlando Magic also earned a victory over the Los Angeles Clippers, but with five games separating them in the Jazz, it likely won’t impact their final draft position.

The Jazz also put some distance between themselves and other lottery hopefuls.

The Washington Wizards fell to the Sacramento Kings, dropping to 32-39, and now sit 2.5 games below the Jazz.

The Indiana Pacers were crushed by the Philadelphia 76ers 141-121, snapping a streak in which they’d won six of their last nine.

Like the Wizards, the Pacers are now 2.5 games below the Jazz at 32-39 in the East.

With 12 games left to play the Jazz are tied with the Thunder and Timberwolves for the eighth-best record in the West, but the 12th-worst record in the league overall.

Utah Jazz Next Game

The Utah Jazz and Sacramento Kings will tip off at 7 pm MT on Monday in Salt Lake City. 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.

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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Clutch Rookies Push Jazz Past Celtics