Luck-Adjusting is a term many long-time twitter followers of myself may be familiar with. It’s largely been adopted within the analytics community to help filter game-to-game noise in plus-minus data for hot-and-cold three point shooting and free throw luck, as those variables have been studied to almost universally regress to the mean. By accounting for the fact that, say, an opponent may have shot 65% from three in the first half and then fixing the point differential to project the second half, we often come to a much more realistic and accurate number to how the given opponent’s offense had actually matched up in the first half and can adopt a more succinct game plan for the second half.
On December 7th, the Utah Jazz mounted an improbable comeback to beat the Golden State Warriors. Behind by 3 with 24 seconds remaining and forfeiting the ball as well as a second flagrant free throw, Utah was given just a 1.8% chance to pull off the impossible. Make no mistake, this was hardly the “Defending Champion” Golden State Warriors, as they were missing three key All-Star starters in Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins, and of course Stephen Curry. Yet, Golden State had wrestled back from a 9-point deficit entering the fourth quarter to have a firm grip on the result of the game. They’d done so behind Jordan Poole collecting 36 points on 62 percent true shooting - Poole was the pre-season favorite for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award. They’d also been riding the experience of legendary shooter Klay Thompson and NBA Finals Starter Kevon Looney. Golden State was far from being totally lost of its britches.
Utah found itself in a similar spot. Mike Conley Jr. was missing his third week of basketball, though he’d been listed as a game-time decision. All-Star hopeful Lauri Markkanen had been a pre-game scratch due to illness. Collin Sexton - Conley’s replacement - would find himself out of the end of the game after experiencing tightness in his hamstring. With just 25 seconds remaining, the Jazz’ 3rd regular rotation guard Jordan Clarkson was ejected from the game for picking up a flagrant foul for “unnecessary and excessive contact above the head”. This foul was largely out of a frustration of the last 7-minutes of gameplay; Golden State had powered a 19-8 run to overcome a 9-point deficit and Clarkson had just been blocked on another futile attempt at recovering the win Utah had presumably earned earlier in the game.
Clarkson’s foul was committed with 25 seconds remaining in the game. Utah had just one timeout, Golden State led by two, and - should they take care of business - would have four consecutive free throws to seal the game. Of course, opportunity abounds. Jonathan Kuminga would miss one of his two free throws, and Klay Thompson would find himself receiving the ball in a difficult trap situation on the inbound play and subsequently turnover the ball.
Utah failed to capitalize on the turnover, but would again find opportunity as Jordan Poole would go on to miss one of his two free throws that would have sealed the game. What should have been a 6-point lead for Golden State, regardless of the turnover, was just four - a three pointer away from a one-possession game.
As a reminder, the Jazz were sporting a lineup that included, in order; Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Ochai Agbaji, Malik Beasley, Simone Fontecchio, and Kelly Olynyk. Only one of these individuals started in any games that occurred in October - for a team that was projected to win 23.5 games in Las Vegas sportsbooks.
Alexander-Walker had played in “garbage” time of just 17 of 42 games in the previous year after being traded to Utah, and that trend continued in his second year as he reached the court just 10 times in his first 20 games.
Agbaji was playing his 74th minute of NBA basketball - and it was only due to three rotation players ahead of him falling out of the rotation for one reason or another. Fontecchio was largely in the same camp - playing legitimate minutes in just the 10th game of his NBA career. He’d been on the bench for 90% or more of the other 17 games the team had played.
Beasley had come into the season stating his high hopes of becoming an NBA All-Star, only to be asked to come off of the bench in each of the first 10 games of the season. He did so with his head held high, even when another benched guard was asked to start in place of injured guard Mike Conley.
Olynyk was welcomed after a trade to Utah with a fanbase asking “Why?”, arguing “He’s worse than the player we traded away”! He also entered the game having the team sport a better offensive rating (117.5) while he was on the court than 287 other players could say for themselves, ranking 27th in the NBA.
Jordan Clarkson gave us a glimpse into the Jazz focus in their three-day rest and practice, saying; “[We’ve] been focusing on the last 2 minutes of the games ... That’s what we were mostly working on during our 3 off days.”
Relatably, there’s a memorable quote from Roman philosopher Seneca that is intended to remind the individual that they create their own luck. “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity”. I think that this game is more than a brilliant reminder: Utah was 1-718 prior to Wednesday’s game when trailing by 4 or more points with less than 10 seconds remaining in the game. Each player involved would have nothing to lose, just opportunity to gain - it’s a bit of a microcosm to Utah’s season in that way.
On Utah’s second-to-last possession, the group of rag-tags executed terrifically. Alexander-Walker broke the first line of defense, Agbaji back-cut from the corner, the defense collapsed around both players and it left Malik Beasley open for a three-point shot. Hero-ball no more, in these final moments team-execution reigned supreme.
On the final play of the game, Utah trapped the ball-handler and caused a second turnover in 15 seconds of play. Alexander-Walker swiped down at the ball, taking to heart the preparation Clarkson noted. Olynyk swarmed the play - and again with a breath of luck - dislodged the ball with his leg over to Malik Beasley. Beasley scooped up the ball, dribbled to their own three-point line, and found a cutting Simone Fontecchio who had found himself open under the basket after chasing his assignment into the backcourt. Fontecchio - rather than slipping to the three-point line where he’d found a contract as an NBA player - slipped to the hoop and was wide open for a dunk. Each of the five players on the court made significant contributions towards the last 15-second turnaround, though some of those contributions will go unnoticed because they had been made with a player’s off-ball movement.
This is a largely inconsequential story that will surely pass in silence - will anyone remember a Simone Fontecchio game-winning dunk at the beginning of December in a game without 7 of the most important players? I’d, however, argue that it’s also a story that teaches a lesson I believe we can all take to heart - until opportunity arises, luck rests on the horizon; but without preparation, luck is wholly unattainable.