‘Starting to get the reputation’: Kessler chases triple-double as Jazz beat Raptors

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SALT LAKE CITY — Walker Kessler underwent a microscope on Wednesday. It was his own doing.

In the first quarter, Kessler had 6 points, four rebounds and six blocks. Of course, the thought began to creep in: Could this finally be the time for jazz’s triple-double drought to end?

After electric start, all eyes seemed to be on Kessler to see if he could pull off the elusive feat.

How did it end?

Well, he didn’t quite make the triple-double (he finished with 17 points, 14 rebounds and seven blocks), but he did do something that probably meant a lot more to him: He helped lead the Jazz to victory. The rookie fueled a late 9-0 run to help the Jazz defeat the Toronto Raptors 131-128 at Vivint Arena on Wednesday.

Utah was down 105-104 when Kessler put his final stamp on the game. He had a block on one end (his seventh of the night) and ran down and delivered a two-handed slam on the other.

On the next ball possession in Utah, Kessler grabbed two offensive rebounds and put it in for a layup. He then joined Lauri Markkanen for a 3-pointer to put Utah ahead 113-105. That gave Utah enough margin to hold the line.

So was he aware of the triple-double push?

“I told you in the first quarter,” Markaknen said as he turned to Kessler on the podium.

So, yes, he knew. But the Raptors knew it too, or at least they knew how effective he’d been near the basket. So instead of constantly attacking the rim, they opted for jumpers or dribbling out of the paint. This made it difficult to pick up the rest of the blocks, but it still had a massive impact on Jazz gain.

“When they dribble out like that… I’m kind of shading. Just think of me as a cardboard cutout. That’s about who I am on a basic level,” Kessler said dryly.

He knew about the triple-double pursuit, but he was far more concerned about Utah taking the win.

“I knew it was a possibility,” Kessler said. “But I’m someone I play my best basketball at if I’m just worried about affecting the game and winning. So you try to just put that aside and just do what it takes to win.”

Funnily enough, however, Toronto had a triple-double on their side. Fred VanVleet finished with 34 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists, showing once again that the stat line isn’t uncommon unless you’re wearing a Jazz jersey.

Markkanen had 28 points and 13 rebounds, capping off his All-Star campaign nicely. The All-Star Reserves will be announced Thursday, and Markkanen is close to naming the team. He went off the field 7 of 13 on Wednesday in a hyper-efficient night usual for the star striker.

“We saw a lot of it from Lauri,” said jazz coach Will Hardy. “I feel like it’s not a thing; it’s a couple of 3s, his teammates find him for a couple. He can find his way to the free throw line by physically driving the ball. We used him as a screener a lot tonight and he did a good job mixing popping and rolling.”

Jordan Clarkson added 23 points and five assists and Mike Conley had 19 points and eight assists for Utah in the win.

The Jazz improved to 27-26 and moved above .500 for the first time since December 30th.

However, it’s been a lot longer since Carlos Boozer had Utah’s last triple-double in the regular season (February 13, 2008) – a streak continued after Kessler’s early threat. However, its impact was greater than the seven blocks.

“You can probably find 10-15 other takes that he alters or that the guys don’t even do,” Hardy said. “He’s starting to make a name for himself in the league where the guys see him and they kind of turn and go the other way. So he was great for us. I think his growth, his confidence has been something that we’re really proud of as a group.”

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