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Markkanen scores career-high 49 as one of highest single-game totals in Jazz history

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SALT LAKE CITY β€” Walker Kessler humorously called over each member of the Utah Jazz to a table as they walked to the team plane on Wednesday.

Self-labeling himself as Lauri Markkanen's All-Star campaign manager, Kessler handed out sweatshirts that featured the print from Markkanen's nostalgic-fueled photoshoot to each member of the team (often in hilarious fashion).

When Markkanen finally arrived and saw the scene, he playfully told Kessler, "I'm not paying you."

That made some sense; after all, he's handling all the campaigning well himself. The latest example came on Thursday in Houston. Markkanen scored a career-high 49 points to lead the Jazz to a 131-114 win over the Rockets at Toyota Center to break Utah's five-game losing streak.

Markkanen was 15-of-27 from the field, 6-of-15 from the 3-point line, and was a perfect 13-of-13 from the free-throw line. He also added eight rebounds, an assist and a block in the historic performance. Markkanen's previous career high was 38 points β€” a total he'd hit twice already this season.

"He was due for a 40-point game and he almost got 50," said Malik Beasley, who had 19 points in the win. "So we're proud of him and ready to get this All-Star going."

Markkanen's outburst is tied for the 15th highest scoring total this season β€” a list that features the who's who of the NBA: Luka Doncic, Joel Embiid, Devin Booker, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Steph Curry, Donovan Mitchell, and others. Most of those guys are all locks to be All-Stars, and Markkanen is inching closer and closer to that status.

Markkanen was one of the early surprises of the season and, yet, he just keeps getting better. He is the seventh-best scorer in the league over the last 10 games.

"What makes the best players in this league so amazing every single night is that they're getting a variety of defenses thrown at them," Will Hardy said before the game. "They're having adjustments made towards them throughout a game, and they have to recognize what's happening, how they're being guard and how they need to adjust appropriately."

If there's a thing Markkanen has improved on this season, it's that. Defenses are keying in on him in different ways than before, and he's learned how to adjust on the fly.

In the first quarter on Thursday, Markkanen scored 18 points β€” the most he's ever scored in a single quarter β€” with the help of four 3-point makes. Once the Rockets adjusted to take away those open looks, he changed how he was playing.

The All-Star hopeful didn't have a single free-throw attempt in the first 12 minutes but finished the game with 13 β€” and he made all of them. Instead of settling for contested outside jumpers, he put pressure on Houston with rolling drives to the rim. He was 9-of-10 from inside the paint and drew plenty of fouls, too.

He just about matched his first quarter output by scoring 17 points in the fourth quarter to help the Jazz pull away for good.

"Lauri has done such a good job of continuing to work on different ways he can impact the game offensively," Hardy said. "Obviously, he's shown the ability to shoot the ball, but I think the physicality that he's played with driving the ball, and the physicality that he's played with as a screener has given him an opportunity to score in a variety of ways.

"He's finding a way to get to the free-throw line a lot because of that physicality; and anytime you see guys have big scoring nights in the NBA, a lot of times there's a lot of free throws involved in that. He's just shown an understanding of how to play when teams try to take certain things away from him."

Markkanen, though, isn't really an isolation scorer. He's averaged only 1.2 isolation possessions per game, which is well behind most of the other top scorers in the league (though, it should be noted, his efficiency on those possessions is among the best in the NBA).

That's what makes Markkanen so different as a scorer. He doesn't need the ball to be constantly in his hands to find shots or put up big numbers; he trusts his teammates to find him in the flow of the game.

So when he was asked how he was able to put up such a historic game, he gave credit to those around him.

"My teammates, that's all it is," Markkanen said. "The coaching staff do a great job putting me in the situations to succeed, and my teammates deliver me the ball and have trust in me. So it feels good. And just like I have confidence in those guys, they believe in me."

Markkanen's performance truly was historic.

It was the first time in almost 25 years that a Jazz player had scored 49 or more points in a regular-season game. The last time it happened was back in April 1998 when Karl Malone scored 56 points against the Golden State Warriors.

He's also only the third player β€” Malone and Adrian Dantley being the others β€” to score at least 49 points for the Jazz in the regular season since the team moved to Utah (Mitchell scored over 50 twice in the playoffs). Markkanen is the first Jazz player to score 45 or more points without committing a turnover.

And, yet, it didn't feel like a fluke, either. He didn't have a great night from 3-point range, he didn't get to the free-throw line a ton more than he normally does, and he's had better shooting nights overall. No, he won't be scoring 49 points per night, but he's no doubt a top-level scorer.

Still, it was a special night. And when he got to the locker room, the team celebrated his game accordingly and surrounded the Finnish star to drench him with water.

"(Jordan Clarkson) says all the time in our locker room, 'Keep the vibe alive.' Our guys are all bought into the group," Hardy said. "They're happy for each other's success and I think that's what makes this season fun. Fun is underrated in the NBA, and it's easy to get lost in the mix and the ups and downs of a season, but these guys have kept that approach every day.

"It's always a good feeling as a coach when you see the guys really rooting for each other."

Or even seeing one of them become another's campaign manager β€” not that Markkanen needs it.

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