SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Sports) – Walker Kessler really is a rising star.
One day after being selected to play in the NBA Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star Weekend, the rookie center had 17 points, 14 rebounds and seven blocked shots as the Jazz held off the Toronto Raptors Wednesday night, 131-128.
Lauri Markkanen had 28 points and 13 rebounds, while Mike Conley scored a season-high 19 points, including a three-point play and two clutch free throws in the closing minutes.
“I think my teammates did a great job of putting me in the right spot,” said Kessler, who had five blocked shots in the first quarter alone.
“Taking my time, having a little more patience, not just going right away and being a little bit stronger with the ball,” said Markkanen of finishing strong against the physical Raptors after a slow start.
Toronto’s Fred VanVleet had his second career triple-double with 34 points, a career-best 12 rebounds and 10 assists, but the Jazz overcame that effort by shooting 53% and making key play after key play down the stretch.
Conley, who had eight assists to go along with his 19 points, drew Pascal Siakam’s sixth foul on a head fake and completed a three-point play to give the Jazz a 120-113 lead with 2:13 remaining.
“(Siakam) reached in but I was able to finish it. Really was the best of both worlds there. It was a big play and I think it got us going enough able to finish the game,” Conley said.
VanVleet kept the Raptors close with his 3-point shooting, but Toronto couldn’t complete the comeback effort.
Conley hit two free throws with 12.2 seconds left to seal the win and the Jazz moved above .500 at 27-26.
“Mike has been such a steadying force for us late in games,” said Jazz head coach Will Hardy. “He and I have developed a very good communication about what we would like to do and he does a good job communicating that to the team and getting them organized. His decision-making continues to be great late in games.”
Jordan Clarkson scored seven of his 23 points in the final 1:39 as the Jazz held on for its fifth win in the last seven games.
“(Kessler) got seven blocks tonight and I don’t know how many more he affected. Guys just stopped going in on him at some point,” Markkanen said.
Siakam scored 21 before fouling out, Gary Trent Jr. had 20 points and the Raptors stayed in the game with a season-high with 25 offensive rebounds.
“Obviously you saw a lot of those rebounds were off our own misses,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said. “I thought we had some really good chances down there that we didn’t finish and those led out to some transition 3s.”
Kessler had NBA season-best six blocked shots in the first quarter, tying the franchise record that Mark Eaton set on Feb. 18, 1989, against San Antonio. Eaton had six blocks in both the second and fourth quarter and 14 overall in that game.
The Jazz, at times, showed their youth — failing to box out for rebounds, turning the ball over and slow getting back on defense, which led to 28 fast-break points for Toronto.
Toronto grabbed 25 offensive rebounds, while the Jazz committed 16 turnovers.
Malik Beasley had four 3s and all 14 of his points in the first half as the Jazz led by as many as 14 points. The Raptors cut it to 65-60 at the break, thanks to 15 points off Utah’s 11 turnovers. Toronto had just two giveaways and 15 offensive rebounds in the same span.
The Jazz (28-26) are over the .500 mark for the first time since December 28th. Utah next hosts Atlanta Friday night at 7:00 p.m.