Cleveland • Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin shook things up for the start. Then he mostly got the finish he wanted.
With Josh Howard cemented in the starting lineup Monday and Gordon Hayward spending the opening tip on the bench, Utah fired out of the gate, opening a 17-point lead before putting away the Cavaliers 109-100 at Quicken Loans Arena.
The end wasn’t perfect. The Jazz (18-19) were outscored 59-53 during the second half by a poor Cleveland (13-23) team that’s surviving solely on rookie point guard Kyrie Irving, and the Cavs cut Utah’s lead to 105-100 with 49.9 seconds to go.
But for a Jazz squad that’s struggled all season to finish games away from Salt Lake City, simply beating anyone on the road was an achievement. Utah moved to 4-13 outside of EnergySolutions Arena, and the Jazz are 1-1 on their five-game road trip, heading into a very winnable game Wednesday against Charlotte — a four-win club that’s statistically the worst in the NBA.
“We won the game, and we needed a big road win. We’re going to hold on to this one for a day and a half,” Corbin said.
Center Al Jefferson recorded game highs in points (25) and rebounds (13) to lead Utah, adding a career-high seven assists. The near triple-double left Jazz backup point guard Earl Watson jokingly making postgame Magic Johnson references, while Rajon Rondo and the All-Star Skills Challenge also entered the conversation.
Jefferson smiled wide. But he also soaked up the praise.
When Big Al joined Utah in July 2010, passing was not his strongest asset — especially not evading double teams by finding an open teammate on the perimeter. But while Jefferson will never be confused with the greatest passing post players of all time, he’s come a long way during his one and a half seasons with the Jazz.
In Minnesota, Jefferson said it was simple: If he didn’t shoot the ball, nothing good was likely to happen.
With Utah, the Jazz are sometimes at their best when Jefferson picks his spots, then sets up everyone from Hayward and Watson to Devin Harris and Josh Howard.
“In an offense like this, a big man like me should average no [fewer] than three, four assists a game. … Now I’ve got guys around me, and it’s common sense. A double team: pass it out.” Jefferson said. “Sometimes I get in that moment, and I feel like I can still score on a double team. But the best way to do it is just pass the ball out and my teammates will get me open.”
Hayward got himself open. Making his first reserve appearance of the season, the second-year forward took the court with 3:28 left in the first quarter and never looked back.
It was G-Man at his best — aggressive, relentless and efficient. Everything from 3-pointers and midrange jump shots to fast-break layups followed, and the Jazz stormed the path blazed by him and Harris.
“We were just out there playing. Earl does a great job of running that unit, and he’s the one that’s kind of orchestrating the whole thing,” said Hayward, who tied his season high with 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting. “He was able to get me a couple more touches; we were able to run some pick-and-rolls. … Running in transition: Anytime we run like that it’s good for us, because we get a couple easy buckets and the offense just flows a bit more; we get some momentum.”
With the buzz from recent back-to-back home wins against Houston and Miami still pulsing, a Jazz team that dropped 9 of 11 from Feb. 6-28 has won three of four.
Philadelphia and Chicago still lurk on Utah’s five-game road journey, and the Jazz walked off the hardwood Monday tied with struggling Portland for 10th place in the Western Conference. But Corbin’s midseason lineup change created an initial spark, and Utah’s selflessness could be one of its strongest weapons during the final 29 games of the season.
“This is a game that we know we had to win,” Jefferson said. “Every game from here on out, we have to win. We’re trying to stay in the playoff race. We just have to do it. We talk about it all the time, but we just have to get it done.”
Harris (sprained left knee) will be re-evaluated Tuesday in Charlotte. He said he slightly tweaked his medial collateral ligament, but doesn’t think the injury is serious. … The Jazz won away from SLC for only the third time since Jan. 15. … Cleveland (13-23) dropped its sixth consecutive game. Antawn Jamison and Irving scored a co-team-high 22 points for the Cavs, who are winless since the All-Star break.
Jazz-Cavaliers box score: http://bit.ly/xWd2U1
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Storylines Jazz trump Cleveland
R In short • The Jazz hold off a late rally by Cleveland to down the Cavaliers on the road.
Key stat • Utah forward Gordon Hayward scores 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting off the bench.
Key moment • After Cleveland pulls within 104-98, the Jazz end the game on a 5-2 run in the final 1:20.