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SALT LAKE CITY — Walker Kessler sat in front of his locker and looked dejected.
The 21-year-old rookie has regularly brightened up the locker room this season with his contagious smile and well-timed one-liners. But after the Utah Jazz's 118-117 loss on Saturday to the Philadelphia 76ers, it was hard to find that same joy.
"It's tough to be super happy," Kessler said. "It's a tough loss, but you have to be positive, as well. I definitely think there is encouragement, and just the fact that I am learning more and starting to figure it out."
Kessler talked about the positives, but it seemed Utah's final defensive possession weighed heavily on his mind. That was when, with the Jazz holding onto a one-point lead, Joel Embiid hit a stepback one-footed fadeaway jumper over Kessler to give the 76ers a late lead.
It was a tough shot and was practically unguardable, but that fact wasn't much solace moments after the loss. In fact, Kessler searched for ways he could have done better.
"You don't want to get too close to him, because the way the refs had been calling the game you could have gotten a foul," Kessler said. "Maybe a closer close out?"
He accepted that it was simply a tough shot made by one of the best players on the planet, but that didn't mean he didn't want one more shot at it
"Obviously, I could sit here and say I should have blocked it and all this, but that's just how I think, you know. I take a lot of responsibility for stuff like that," Kessler said.
The hot start to the year may have masked it, but this season is all about learning. It's a roster of players that could be part of a future contending team and learning how to develop in the league into better players. And, apparently, learning how to play in close games.
The Jazz haven't played the most tight games this season, but they are awfully close. On Saturday, it came down to the final seconds again — which, honestly, was a surprise.
Jazz clutch stats
- 25 games played within one possession within the last five minutes left. (No. 3 in the NBA)
- 21 games played within one possesion within the final minute (No. 3 in the NBA)
- 17 games decided in the final 10 seconds (No. 3 in the NBA)
The Jazz were down by as much as 20 points in the first half, were without three rotation players, including Lauri Markkanen, and were playing a 76ers team that had been one of the best in the league over the past month. It shouldn't have come down to the final possession.
Yet, with 1:48 left, Mike Conley buried a 3-pointer to tie the game. Thus began the now-regular back-and-forth final moments to finish the game.
Kessler tipped in a miss with 33.9 seconds left to play to give Utah its first lead of the game. Then, Clarkson hit a floater with 13.3 second left to re-take the lead. Even after Embiid's step-back shot the Jazz had a chance to win.
The Jazz got the ball in Clarkson's hands up top but was met by two defenders after Embiid left Conley, who was heading up top to give Clarkson an option — at that point, a wide-open option. Instead of passing, though, Clarkson took a desperation 3-pointer that flew behind the backboard. Clarkson finished with 38 points on 16-of-29 shooting.
"I think if Mike slips out a little bit earlier, maybe JC sees him," Jazz coach Will Hardy said.
"I think our adjustment could have been just me slipping out early, not allowing Joel to be in the play at all and giving JC more space to maneuver and make a play," Conley added.
"I probably can try to rip it back the other way and avoid getting in that double team situation playing a sideline," Clarkson said.
So chalk it up to another learning moment in a season full of them.
"I always say you win five of these games, you lose five like that," Conley said. "We'll win on a tip in and we'll lose on a tip in; it's going to happen. At some point, we'll string together two or three or four wins by 1 or 2 points and feel real good about it. So I'm just proud of the way the guys keep fighting."
But at least for the young Kessler, Saturday was hard to stomach.