The Utah Jazz (35-39) and Phoenix Suns (39-35) have a couple of things in common heading into the home stretch of the season.
Both teams are still in the thick of it when it comes to the postseason. And both are trying to make do without key players.
And like the Suns did Saturday night against Philadelphia, the Jazz come into Monday’s matchup in Salt Lake City hoping to break a three-game losing streak.
Utah came close to finding a way to win in Sacramento on Saturday despite missing its three leading scorers: Lauri Markkanen, Jordan Clarkson and Collin Sexton.
Rookie Walker Kessler had one of the best games in franchise history for a first-year player, leading the comeback.
Kessler scored 31 points on 14-of-16 shooting and hauled in 11 rebounds against Sacramento, helping Utah pull within striking distance in the fourth quarter before the Kings finished them off.
Rookie Ochai Agbaji added 20 points and Jarrell Brantley had 13 for the relentless Jazz.
“We are all fighters,” Kessler said. “Going into this game, we knew that it was going to be a battle. We knew we weren’t going to quit regardless of who was sitting or not. I’m super proud of this team and how we played. Obviously disappointing that we didn’t get the win, but it says a lot about the team.”
Kessler became the first-ever rookie in Jazz franchise history to record at least 30 points and double-digit rebounds. The big man has been a pleasant surprise after being one of the many pieces Utah received from Minnesota in exchange for three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.
“He contributes to winning,” Jazz coach Will Hardy said of Kessler. “You don’t see a ton of rookies coming in and contribute to winning. … You don’t see a ton of rookies come in and immediately make an impact. He’s done that.”
The Jazz are still just on the outside looking in on one of the four play-in spots, while the Suns are holding on to the No. 4 position.
Phoenix earned an impressive 125-105 win over Philadelphia on Saturday even without Kevin Durant and Deandre Ayton.
Bismack Biyombo was the difference for the Suns with 17 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks. Devin Booker scored 29 to help end the skid. Phoenix had lost six of seven.
“Bizzy plays hard,” Phoenix guard Chris Paul said. “That’s a talent. He’s in the right spot at the right time and his energy — we feed off it. He covers up a lot of our mistakes on the defensive end.”
“When things are not going well, what do you do?” Biyombo said. “You’ve just got to put your head down and keep working and eventually we’ll catch a break.”
The Suns finished strong against the Sixers, outscoring them 36-22 in the fourth quarter.
This will be the third and final regular season game between Phoenix and Utah, who had a pair of one-point games in November.
Utah earned a 134-133 home win despite 49 points from Booker and Phoenix then held serve in the Valley of the Sun, 113-112, a week later.