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Popovich still providing learning experiences for Hardy as Spurs top Jazz

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SALT LAKE CITY — Jazz coach Will Hardy is still the learner.

The San Antonio Spurs, numbers wise, have been the worst team in the NBA this season. They're last in defense, last in net rating, and second to last in offense. They can't score, they can't play defense and they get blown out a lot.

So Monday should have been pretty easy for the upstart Jazz, right?

Apparently San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich still has some tricks up his sleeve, especially for a former pupil.

For the first time as a head coach, Hardy went against Popovich, the coach he spent nearly a decade learning under in San Antonio. He'll need at least another meeting to beat his old boss. The Spurs upset the Jazz 126-122 at AT&T Center Monday in a game that wasn't that close until the final minute.

Utah trailed by as many as 20 points and were down by 14 with just 2:36 left. A furious rally in the closing minutes made things interesting, but, ultimately, the Jazz couldn't overcome what had been a lethargic first three-plus quarters.

"There's nights in the NBA where you can't seem to make a shot, and we had one of those," Hardy said.

Lauri Markkanen had 32 points and 12 rebounds, and Jordan Clarkson finished with 25 points, seven rebounds and four assists, but the Jazz shot 30% from 3-point range and just 40% overall on Monday.

Bad shooting can happen; that wasn't what Hardy was disappointed with after the loss.

"We need to have a better collective focus on the defensive end — guarding the ball, helping our teammates, shifting and showing a crowd," he said. "I just don't think that we did that very well tonight, and the Spurs exposed it."

Indeed, they did — time and time again — as San Antonio finished with 74 points in the paint.

The Jazz didn't provide a lot of pressure on drives, and once Walker Kessler got into foul trouble it was like the Spurs had a free runway to the rim. When Kessler was in the game, San Antonio had a 96 offensive rating; they finished with a 120 rating.

"I felt like there were a lot of right hand drives for their players attacking the rim. It put us in a really tough spot, because we did not do a good enough job at the point of attack guarding the ball tonight," Hardy said. "And so, if you combine that with a night where you don't make 3s, which we shoot a bunch of them, you're in for a tough night."

San Antonio has struggled to score and defend all season; on Monday, it was the Jazz. That led to loss in a game Utah fans likely had penciled in as a win. With the Jazz in the middle of what is turning out to be a deep and contested playoff chase, it's one of those games Utah could look back on and kick themselves come April.

"We knew these games are always tough going on the road after holiday," said Mike Conley, who had 17 points. "We knew we would have to match their energy output early. Give them credit, they kept pushing, kept getting to the rim, and they kept tempo fast, and we never really got our feet under us. We didn't make shots, obviously, but that can't be an excuse for what we do on the opposite end."

Was it a post-holiday hangover, or did the Jazz let the poor-shooting night zap their energy? They both probably played a role.

"We can't let making or missing shots impact our energy on that end, because we are going to go through plenty more pockets of this season where we don't make shots," Hardy said. "We're going to miss eight 3s in a row and in those moments, you have to lean on your defense and your energy on that end."

The Jazz didn't do that on Monday; and yet, the team nearly pulled off what would have been a stunning comeback.

Malik Beasley held his head in shock after a 3-point attempt had gone halfway through the hoop and then rolled out of the rim — that emotion was shared by the entire Jazz bench. The players looked dumbfounded on the bench with their mouths open in shock and their hands gripping the head.

That shot with 57 seconds left would have cut the San Antonio lead to a single point and very well could have led to a different result for Utah. The Jazz went on a 10-0 run in the closing minutes to nearly steal a game they had no business winning.

Even without Beasley's shot, though, Utah was one stop away from getting a look to win the game.

Jordan Clarkson hit a 3-pointer with 30.6 seconds left to cut San Antonio's lead to 3 points, but Tre Jones' floater dropped in and Utah's run came to an end. That shot didn't beat Utah, the first 46 minutes did.

"In the moment, it's hard — you miss a few (shots), you get frustrated, and your brain starts to wander towards that and you're not as locked in on defense," Hardy said. "So, again, it's a great opportunity for our team to learn that we have to maintain that focus."

After 10 years of lessons, Popovich is still providing learning experiences for Hardy.

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