A united team standing strong. A crowd in rapture. Confidence. Confetti. And a dry-erase board inside Utah’s locker room, one side loaded with the Western Conference standings, the other with filled with just two, huge words: “Jazz win!”
Utah fought off a furious comeback by Miami on Friday, outlasted an instant-classic fourth quarter by Heat forward LeBron James, and held on for a 99-98 win at EnergySolutions Arena before a sellout crowd of 19,911.
Heat-Jazz box score: http://bit.ly/xEptS8
It was just one victory in a 66-contest season for Utah (17-18). But with a five-game road trip waiting and the Jazz still living down tough recent losses to Minnesota and San Antonio, it was Utah’s most complete and fulfilling win of the year.
Not only did the Jazz knock off a Miami (28-8) squad that entered the game with the NBA’s second-best record and was riding a nine-game winning streak. But Utah played near-perfect ball during the first half, opened up an 18-point lead midway through the third quarter, then finally finished a close, winnable game.
While Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin beamed postgame and talked up his resilient team, he acknowledged something more important than a single win had just occurred. Despite dropping nine of 11 games from Feb. 6-28, Utah’s still eyeing a playoff spot. And even while defeats to some of the NBA’s worst teams - Sacramento, New Orleans - have dented the Jazz’s hopes, wins against Memphis, Houston, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Heat during the last month have proven Utah has what it takes to survive a lockout-shortened season and keep playing ball in May.
“It’s going to be a dogfight the rest of the way and we want to be in the fight,” Corbin said. “We want to stay close, as close as we can while we struggle. And when we come through this thing, we’re going to be in good shape.
“This group of guys, man, there’s no quit in them. They’re staying together. They’re working hard to get better every night. And when we do make mistakes, we take it on ourselves to make sure we understand what’s going on. It’s stand-up group of guys.”
All 10 Jazz players who took the court were forced to stand up to James, who scored a game-high 35 points on 16-of-24 shooting, grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds, dished out six assists and recorded three blocks in 44 minutes, 24 seconds.
The King reigned mightily during the second half, hitting 11 of 14 shots for 23 points. Hhe was almost untouchable in the fourth quarter, pouring in 17 points on 8-of-9 shooting and giving Miami a 97-94 lead after drilling what appeared to be an unmakeable 23-foot jump shot with 26.1 to go.
An Al Jefferson tip-in followed, though. And even when Dwyane Wade (31 points) hit one of two free throws to make it 98-96 Miami, the Jazz were still in control.
After Jefferson (team-high 20 points) passed out of traffic, Devin Harris cut through the lane, threw up a 12-foot floater that perfectly fell downward, then sank his and-1 to give Utah a 99-98 advantage with 4.5 seconds to go.
“I wasn’t expecting to get the ball back early, because it wasn’t really a true double team,” Harris said. “But he’s got confidence in me. He’s been telling me he was going to kick it out all night - he wants to be Magic Johnson.”
James’ magic suddenly ran out. Miami inbounded the ball with 4.5 to go, and it ended up in The King’s hands. But he passed up a contested shot, Udonis Haslem clanked an 18-footer, and Twitter instantly lit up with “James is still afraid to take the final shot” remarks as soon as the Jazz had captured victory.
“The light always shines when I pass and someone misses the last shot,” James said. “Nobody says anything when that guy makes the shot.”
He added: “It was a basketball play.”
It was a perfect play for the Jazz.
Harris talked about a team that believes more than ever in what it can do when it plays the right way.
Josh Howard said Utah’s stunner produced confidence in capital letters, acknowledging the Jazz finally finished what they started.
“Good way to put it: building toward. Being consistent and winning games,” Howard said. “We’ve proved it to ourself that we can do it against a championship-caliber team. So all we’ve got to do is put forth the effort, night-in and night-out, and hopefully we can get those wins.”
The Tribune’s Tony Jones contributed reporting.
R In short • The Jazz hold off LeBron James and the Miami Heat for a last-second win.
KEY MOMENT • Utah’s Devin Harris converts a 3-point play with 4.5 seconds to go.
KEY STAT • James scores 35 points on 16-of-24 shooting, but the Jazz outrebound Miami 50-32.