Al Jefferson walked off the hardwood with his head bowed and shoulders slumped. He breathed in, sighed and slowly walked toward the Jazz’s tunnel. There was no confetti. No shouting or raised arms. Just the hurt.
Utah battled San Antonio for nearly 48 minutes Monday at EnergySolutions Arena. Then the Spurs did what the Spurs do. Passing the ball along the perimeter during a crucial late-game situation like only former NBA champions can, San Antonio sucked out all of Utah’s life with a right-corner 3-pointer by Richard Jefferson with 6.5 seconds to go.
Soon, it was 106-102 Spurs, and San Antonio had captured its 11th consecutive victory. Meanwhile, the Jazz (15-16) had lost their fourth game in five, fallen below .500 for the first time since Jan. 2, and watched another glimpse of momentum slip away as the All-Star break hovers.
At best, Utah will enter the midway point of its lockout-shortened season playing average ball. And with a tough game Wednesday at Minnesota still on the schedule before All-Star weekend tips off, Jazz players acknowledged their challenge didn’t get any easier after watching an 11-point third-quarter lead against the Spurs (23-9) wash away.
San Antonio drilled 47.6 percent (10 of 21) of its 3-point attempts, led by eight combined makes from Matt Bonner and Gary Neal. Richard Jefferson’s bomb closed the show, though, and the Spurs’ perfectly executed last-second possession left Al Jefferson in postgame pain.
Jefferson wants more than anything to bring Utah back to the playoffs. But after starting 9-4, the Jazz have gone 6-12. There have been missed opportunities and mental letdowns. And a late-game dagger like the Western Conference’s second-best team inserted into Utah’s heart Monday? Man, does it hurt.
“It’s tough,” said Jefferson, staring down and speaking softly.
Made tougher by the fact Jazz unleashed one of their best performances in two weeks. Five players hit double figures in scoring, led by 20 points and 11 rebounds from Jefferson. Utah outrebounded San Antonio 41-33, outscored the Spurs 56-30 in the paint, and had several late-game chances to prevail. But all the Jazz ended up with was a stinging L.
“It’s a disappointing loss,” Utah coach Tyrone Corbin said. “I thought the guys really competed hard. We gave ourselves a chance to win the game down at the end. We just have to keep fighting. We just didn’t get the calls or get the plays right at the end of the game. And it’s tough for us. It’s a tough one to take, but you’ve got to move forward.”
That’s all the Spurs have done during their recent roll. San Antonio played without star guard Manu Ginobili. But with Tony Parker (game-high 23 points, 11 assists) in control and Tim Duncan bringing yet another strong and selfless attack, the Spurs were unshakeable down the stretch.
“Those two guys have been magnificent,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said.
Parker threaded an improved Utah defense, Duncan found success in the paint, and the duo combined with Richard Jefferson for 16 of San Antonio’s 26 fourth-quarter points.
And that right-corner 3 from Jefferson was still waiting.
“It’s mental toughness is what it is,” Popovich said. “It’s a professionalism, and a mental toughness, knowing that the game is 48 minutes and you just keep playing. That’s your responsibility to each other, and you have to feel it and believe it.”
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R In short • The Jazz watch an 11-point third-quarter lead slip away to the Spurs.
Key stat • San Antonio drills 47.6 percent (10 of 21) of its 3-point attempts.
Key moment • Spurs forward Richard Jefferson sinks a 3 from the corner with 6.5 to go, making it 105-100 San Antonio.