Sacramento, Calif. • That killer mentality Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin was looking for before tipoff Tuesday?
Utah’s still searching for it. And with each close defeat - with each road loss the backsliding Jazz pile up - Utah’s early-season vision of the playoffs continues to fade.
Faltering down the stretch yet again, the Jazz watched a slim fourth-quarter lead over the Sacramento Kings turn into a 103-96 defeat at Power Balance Pavilion.
Jazz-Kings box score: http://bit.ly/A82qIU
The loss erased one of Devin Harris’ best offensive performances for Utah (15-18), and it continued a disturbing trend a Jazz team that’s dropped four consecutive games started before the All-Star break.
For three quarters, Utah can hang. Then the fourth arrives. Without a closer, the Jazz’s offense stalls. Lacking lockdown defenders, Utah watches opposing wings soar. And by the time Kings (12-22) forward DeMarcus Cousins had poured in game-highs in points (22) and rebounds (18), and fearless Sacramento guards Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Thornton had combined for 39 points, it was simply more of the same for a Jazz squad that’s technically spent the last six weeks performing as one of the NBA’s worst teams.
“I really don’t know,” said center Al Jefferson, who sighed heavily during the statement. “I don’t know. It’s just [we] make simple mistakes, miss shots. I don’t know. It’s like the same song on repeat. I don’t know. I can’t put my hand on it.”
This is known: Utah’s losses are starting to mount, and the team’s lack of traction is becoming unavoidable.
The Jazz started the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season a surprising 9-4. Since then, Utah is just 6-14. It walked off the hardwood Tuesday stuck in fifth- and last-place in the Northwest Division, two games behind Minnesota and Denver. And while the Jazz can still eye the cutoff point for the Western Conference’s eighth and final postseason spot, Utah’s now just 3.5 games ahead of 14th-place Sacramento, which began the season as a near certainty to end the year dreaming of falling lottery balls by the time late April rolled around.
Factor in the Jazz’s imposing March schedule - upcoming home contests against Houston and Miami; a five-game road trip with matchups at Dallas, Philadelphia and Chicago - and Utah’s uneven record could force the team to become sellers at the trade deadline, even though the organization is holding ground now.
The Jazz’s inability to either maintain or build upon leads is also creating a deja-vu effect. Jefferson’s gone from saying it feels like the team’s riding a rollercoaster to watching the same videotape on endless repeat. And while Corbin continues to point out Utah needs to learn how to win close contests, four of the Jazz’s five starters are experienced veterans who long ago should’ve figured out how to finish what they begin.
In contrast, all five of Sacramento’s starters have four years or less of experience - Thomas is a rookie, Cousins is in his second year - and the youngsters carried the Kings when the minutes counted most.
“We’ve got to understand, when we get a team on the ropes, man, especially on the road, you can’t afford to let ‘em hang around,” Corbin said. “You’ve got to push it up to that six points, to 12 points, 15 points, and then you’ve got to control it from there. And we could never get that separation. They stayed close and they made the plays down the stretch.”
Former Brigham Young University guard Jimmer Fredette scored just five points in eight minutes for the Kings, who played their first home game since agreeing Monday to a tentative deal with the NBA to remain in Sacramento and build a new arena for the 2015-16 season.
“I came into the arena [Tuesday] and so many people - not just our players, but people here working - were all just excited,” Kings coach Keith Smart said. “This is huge for our team and our city and the franchise to do what they’re doing with this basketball team.”
Notes • Jazz forward Paul Millsap (bruised left heel) left the game with 2 minutes, 19 seconds left in the fourth quarter and didn’t return. He’ll be re-evaluated Wednesday for Utah’s home game against the Rockets. … The Jazz are open to making a move before the March 15 trade deadline to improve the team, The Salt Lake Tribune has learned, but a deal isn’t imminent. Utah doesn’t feel pressure to immediately move starting big men Jefferson and Millsap to make room for youngsters Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, and the Jazz are still evaluating a team that has nine contests remaining before the deadline. But Utah remains open to moving Harris, league sources said, while reserve small forward C.J. Miles could be made available in the right situation. … Jazz guard Raja Bell missed his third consecutive game due to a strained left adductor. Josh Howard started in his place. Corbin said he’ll consider keeping Howard in the starting lineup after Bell returns and moving Gordon Hayward to the bench, but nothing has officially been decided. … Kings owners Gavin and Joe Maloof addressed fans midway through the first quarter, and were joined by Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson during the second period. “There’s going to be a beacon of light shining bright in 2015,” Gavin said. Johnson added: “We did it. ... We’re going to see basketball here for many years.”
R In short • The Jazz fall to 3-12 on the road and fail to finish down the stretch.
KEY MOMENT • Sacramento’s John Salmons drills a long-range 2 after Devin Harris cuts it to 95-94.
Rockets at Jazz
P At EnergySolutions Arena
Tipoff • 7 p.m., Wednesday
TV • ROOT Sports
Radio • 1320 AM, 1600 AM, 98.7 FM
Records • Rockets 21-14, Jazz 15-18
Last meeting • Rockets, 101-85 (Feb. 19)
About the Rockets • Houston downed Toronto 88-85 Tuesday. … The Rockets have won four consecutive games and five of six.
About the Jazz • Utah entered the All-Star break having lost 8 of 10. … Forward DeMarre Carroll was active Tuesday against Sacramento but did not play during the first half.