Sacramento, Calif. • The softest hands in the NBA saved the Jazz.
Al Jefferson caught what Devin Harris floated, then smoothly laid in a game-winning basket with 0.9 seconds to go. Sacramento was stunned. Power Balance Pavilion was shocked. Utah? Stronger than ever and again on top, surviving its toughest fight of the year for a thrilling 103-102 victory on Thursday.
The surging Jazz (25-22) won their fifth consecutive game, which tied a season high. In turn, a Utah team whose confidence, chemistry and resilience are becoming rock-strong remained just a half-game behind Houston for the eighth and final playoff seed in the Western Conference.
“You can’t say enough about our guys and the sense of urgency as the season winds down,” Utah coach Tyrone Corbin said. “We are in a playoff hunt and teams are fighting to get into the playoffs, so this win was nice for us.
“I can’t be more proud of these guys. They give you everything they can give you. We’ve given up some leads, but we hang in there and fight and scratch. It’s just our growth that we continue to go through.”
In the Jazz’s past week, Utah has won two contests in overtime, beaten Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Lakers, and reannounced itself as a legitimate force in the West.
Thursday’s punchout was on another level, though.
The Jazz’s offense ran in top gear for three quarters, giving Utah a 76-62 lead with five minutes left in the third. Then Sacramento’s Tyreke Evans and Marcus Thornton took over, rolling off 19 points on 8-of-14 shooting in the final period. Suddenly, it was 92-91 Kings with 6:25 to go.
Then it was 95-94 Utah.
Then, 96-95 Sacramento.
Blow after blow after blow.
A tie. A two-point Jazz lead. A deadly 3-pointer by Thornton. A tough inside bucket by fearless Jazz rookie Alec Burks that made it 101-100 Utah with 12.3 seconds remaining.
The action wasn’t even close to over.
Thornton split the Jazz’s once-strong defense for a driving layup with 4.1 seconds left, and Sacramento (17-30) appeared to have stolen what belonged to Utah.
Then the ball was back in Harris’ hands. Winding down the clock and slowly dribbling toward his right, Utah’s point guard tossed up a soft floater that initially appeared to be a shot — one that was surely falling short.
But Big Al saved it. Jumping skyward and barely touching the ball before pushing it upward, Jefferson’s push-shot sank downward with just 0.9 seconds remaining.
He had saved it. The Jazz had done it. And a team fiercely fighting for the playoffs pulled off a stunner.
Was Harris’ game-winning toss a brilliant pass or a failed shot that was given new life at the last possible moment?
Harris said it was a pass.
So, of course it was.
“I honestly thought [Harris’] shot was short. But after Devin explained it, [I didn’t],” said Jefferson, who scored a game-high 26 points on 13-of-19 shooting. “No, seriously. Like the way it looked, that’s the only way he could throw it. He was facing my [defender]. I was at the basket by myself and that was the only way he could get it to me. It was a perfect pass — it was a good pass, and I finished it.”
And the Kings.
Despite scoring 22 points and grabbing 18 rebounds, Sacramento forward DeMarcus Cousins was just 9 of 28 from the field. The moody second-year big man was supposed to guard Jefferson on the final play. But once Harris’ pass was floated, Big Al said he was left “butt-naked.”
“I caught myself coming over and trying to make a difficult shot for Devin Harris, which put me out of position and put Al Jefferson in position to get an easy putback, so I’ll take [the blame for] the loss,” Cousins said.
While the young and talented Kings forward continued to mix progress with backward steps — after exchanging words midgame with Harris, Cousins said afterward he plans to “solve” whatever the Jazz guard’s “issue” is — all Jefferson could talk about was evolution.
Utah is stacking up playoff-worthy wins by blending veteran poise with thrilling youth. Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Burks are carrying the same weight as trusted pros such as Paul Millsap and Jamaal Tinsley. And Jefferson believes the Jazz are building something that’s only just begun.
“This is going to be a great team one day. … I take my hat off to [Utah General Manager] Kevin O’Connor — he went and got some great guys,” Jefferson said. “If I’m with them or I’m not, this is going to be a great team one day.”
R In short • The Jazz down Sacramento on Al Jefferson’s tip-in floater with 0.9 seconds to go.
Key stat • Five Utah players hit double figures in scoring, led by a game-high 26 from Jefferson.
Key moment • Devin Harris draws the Kings’ defense, then floats it to Jefferson for the game-winner.