Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Jazz coach Will Hardy had sympathy for his rookie center on Saturday night.
During one break in the action, Walker Kessler approached his head coach and simply stated, "I'm trying really hard."
Hardy's response: "Dude, I get it. He's the two-time MVP."
Kessler, like most of his Jazz teammates, was thrown into the fire in Denver against the Nuggets.
Utah was extremely shorthanded on Saturday: Lauri Markkanen, Mike Conley and Simone Fontecchio didn't even board the plane to Denver; Jordan Clarkson and Collin Sexton were in street clothes on the Jazz bench.
That meant Utah was without 60% of its preferred starting lineup and also its top three scorers on Saturday.
Yet, with 3.8 seconds left in the game, Nickeil Alexander-Walker put up a game-tying 3-point attempt. But there was no Cinderella ending on Saturday at Ball Arena. Alexander-Walker's shot went wide and the Denver Nuggets held on for a 115-110 win over the Jazz. Utah dropped to 15-14 with the loss.
They were that close despite an MVP-like performance from Nikola Jokic, who had 31 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds; and a 30-point night from fellow star Jamal Murray.
On paper, it shouldn't have been close — ad yet it was. So the loss didn't necessarily feel like one afterward.
Alexander-Walker and Talen Horton-Tucker, two players who have been in and out of the rotation all season, led the Jazz in minutes with 40 and 34, respectively. Hardy also gave significant time to rookie Ochai Agbaji and seldom used guard Leandro Bolmaro.
There were lineups that hadn't been seen through the first 28 games of the year and players forced into new roles. It almost led to a shocking victory, too.
Alexander-Walker had 27 points and three rebounds to lead the Jazz, and Malik Beasley and Horton-Tucker both added 19 points in the loss. Utah even led 104-102 with 5:33 remaining, but just couldn't close out the game.
"The fact that it was a game, the fact that we came out of the half and had a 38-point quarter in the third to put us in the game," Alexander-Walker said. "We shouldn't have been in that position, by paper or whatever you want to say. But I think the fact that we were says that we did the right things. It says we played together, we fought hard, and each guy tried to step up."
Hardy was more than pleased with how his deep bench performed in larger roles, even saying "they deserved to win the game." A couple missed shots down the stretch, along with some errant passes and some bad luck on a no-call on a Horton-Tucker drive late made it so they couldn't quite pull the true underdog story. But getting close, still felt pretty good.
"That's a really good team we just played, and I thought our team represented themselves very, very well," he said.
Hardy went into some specifics on a couple players: Alexander-Walker was key to Utah's chances and led the Jazz in scoring and minutes — but also turnovers. Those, to Hardy, though, are just part of his growth as a player.
"Nickeil, overall, played a very good game. In his position, taking care of the ball is something that's always going to be an emphasis," Hardy said. "I think Nickeil's intent to play with his teammates is very, very good. I think most of his turnovers are passing turnovers, and so I think he's doing a pretty good job making the right read more times than not; sometimes the ball doesn't necessarily get delivered on target. But he works really hard at it.
"And I love the way that Nickeil approaches the game. I think he competes on both ends really, really hard. I don't think that he plays with tunnel vision. I think that he's really trying to involve his teammates and be a part of the group. So that's a credit to him. He's stayed ready all year. He works really hard with our assistant coaches, watches a lot of film. He's a really good young player."
After appearing in just four games this season, Bolmaro got 17 minutes on Saturday in the Jazz's upset bid. He took one shot (a short underhand floater attempt that missed), finished with 0 points and three assists. Obviously, not stats that pop out, but Hardy told fans to keep an eye on Bolamaro in the future.
"I think we see Leo as probably a primary handler, like a point guard," Hardy said. "He thinks pass first for sure. His defense is very good. He guards the ball well. He navigates screens well."
"I don't know what it is about Argentina, but every Argentinian that I've ever been around is an absolute crazy person and competes every possession like it's the last possession of their life. And Leo does that. His energy from the second he steps on the floor is contagious to the group. I think he's somebody for everybody to pay attention to moving forward. He spends a bunch of time in the G League right now to try to get a lot of game minutes but his fire, his mental makeup, his passion for the game is what we're looking for in our program."
That was the type of passion the Jazz displayed on Saturday.
They just came up a bit short.
"We fought to the end; that was prevalent. We gave them our best shot," Kessler said.