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SALT LAKE CITY — Lauri Markkanen was restless. He tried to get a pregame nap in before his return to action on Tuesday but found himself twisting and turning. Excitement, nerves and adrenaline kept him from being able to lie still.
"I was a little nervous," he admitted. "It felt like the first game."
Markkanen, Utah's leading scorer and best player this season, had missed the last three games with an illness, and the Jazz hadn't been able to play with their preferred starting lineup since Nov. 19; that's when they beat the Portland Trail Blazers to claim the best record in the Western Conference.
After that game, Utah went 3-8, so Tuesday felt like a restart. The gang was all back together, and the Jazz served up a reminder that they can still play with the league's best.
With their regular starting five back together, Utah beat the New Orleans Pelicans 121-100 at Vivint Arena in a rout of the No. 1 team in the conference; the win snapped the Pelicans' seven-game winning streak. With the win, Utah improved to 16-14, while New Orleans fell to 18-9.
"For us to go out and play the way we did and figure it out as the game went on, kind of reminded ourselves we are a good team," said Mike Conley, who started his first game since returning from a knee injury. "That's who we can be, especially when healthy."
The Jazz looked much more like the team that shocked the league by starting 10-3 on the season on Tuesday night.
Markkanen scored 19 points and had 11 rebounds in his return; and Jarred Vanderbilt had 18 points, 14 rebounds and six assists in what might have been his best overall game in a Jazz jersey. Malik Beasley came off the bench to lead Utah with 21 points.
Zion Williamson had 26 points and nine rebounds for the Pelicans, but New Orleans struggled collectively on the offensive end — and that's putting it lightly.
The Pelicans entered Tuesday as the fifth best offensive team in the league, with an offensive rating of 115.3, but their rating against the Jazz was a 97.1, and it was under 90 through three quarters. New Orleans was 4-of-27 from 3-point range and shot 40% overall for the game.
"That's our best defensive game of the season as a team," Jazz coach Will Hardy said.
The thing that made it so effective were many of the things that helped Utah pull off upsets over the first couple weeks of the season; the Jazz's calling card early was organized chaos on the defensive end. In those early games, the Jazz forced deflections, got their hands in passing lanes, and were relentless in not letting teams reverse the ball.
That all came back on Tuesday.
It wasn't just about creating turnovers — Utah forced 17 — but forcing the Pelicans into jumbled up possessions and contested looks. The shooting percentages, alone, showed the Jazz succeeded in that.
"I just felt as a team we got a little bit rigid on the defensive end; we got a little bit careful. I think we were trying to be perfect on the defensive end, and I think what makes our group have the ability to be special is when we do fly around," Hardy said. "We've talked all year about being an imperfect team and leaning on each other and having a high level of activity, and I thought we got back to that tonight."
That was true especially as the game went on.
Utah closed the first half on a 10-1 run to take a lead it would never relinquish. That run at the end, however, was partially due to Williamson being forced to the bench with foul trouble. Before that, he had been nearly unstoppable and used his Hulk-like frame to power inside for easy buckets.
Williamson sat out the final 9:25 of the half after picking up his third foul, and the Jazz outscored New Orleans by 8 points during that stretch to take the halftime lead. Any doubt that foul trouble was the reason for Utah's success was put to bed after halftime, though.
The Jazz dominated New Orleans to start the second half and scored 39 points in the third quarter to take a 20-point lead into the final quarter. Williamson still got his points, but after a very loud first half, even his effectiveness dropped off. Utah bottled up his drives and then contested shots after he kicked it out.
"We got back to being active defensively, getting steals and just trying to return to being who we are, and who we were the first few weeks of the season," Conley said.
The win snapped Utah's two-game losing streak; but more importantly, Utah appeared to get its swagger back. If it was a true restart of the season, the Jazz reminded everyone how good they still can be.