Denver’s defense kindly parted down the middle, and Jazz guard Devin Harris drove and dunked late in the third quarter Friday night at EnergySolutions Arena.
The celebration was on, and why not? “That might be the last dunk of my career,” Harris said later, smiling.
What’s more, the Jazz enjoyed a 25-point lead in a game that seemingly would determine where these teams are headed in the Western Conference playoff chase.
If there were any remaining questions, the multiple arrows pointing upward next to the Jazz’s name on the standings board in the locker room answered them. After spending the past six weeks below the playoff cut, the Jazz (26-22) have climbed back into contention. That’s what a six-game winning streak will do for you.
The Jazz’s 121-102 victory lifted them into a tie with Denver and Houston for seventh place in the West, thanks to the team’s longest successful run of coach Tyrone Corbin’s career.
Undoubtedly, the Jazz have come a long way since Feb. 7, when they fell out of the West’s top eight with a loss at Indiana in a homecoming game for forward Gordon Hayward. With his parents in town to observe his 22nd birthday Friday, Hayward posted 15 points, seven rebounds and seven assists — and he was far from the only star in a Jazz uniform.
This was a complete effort with seven double-figures scorers and solid defense, bringing even the prospect of a top-four finish and home-court advantage in the playoffs into view.
That subject would have seemed silly not so long ago, but this suddenly is a different Jazz team. The remaining five weeks of this shortened season should be fun.
“It’s going to be a dogfight the rest of the way,” Corbin said. “We can’t afford to relax now that we’re back in the picture.”
The Jazz hardly eased off against Denver. The sixth victory of the streak came routinely, compared with the others. “That’s the best part about tonight: We didn’t let ’em stick around,” Hayward said.
The Jazz’s winning those previous five games — any one of which they easily could have lost — already altered the perception of this team and its playoff possibilities.
The streak began when the Jazz trailed Minnesota by two points in the final seconds of overtime before responding to win.
The clutch performances just kept coming. The Jazz were down by three points in the last 30 seconds of regulation before beating Golden State in OT. They absorbed Kobe Bryant’s 3-point bid to tie the game in the last second against the Lakers in Los Angeles.
The Jazz led Oklahoma City by only one point in the last three minutes Tuesday before pulling away, then they beat Sacramento after falling behind by a point with 4.1 seconds remaining Thursday.
“They’ve got a good personality,” Denver coach George Karl said. “They don’t have maybe a sensational strength, but they don’t have any weaknesses, either.”
Well, they’re second to last in the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage (.308), but even that figure increased Friday.
“Defensively,” Karl said, “they’re the old-school Utah Jazz.”
The new-look Jazz initially defied that description, allowing the Nuggets to shoot 64.7 percent from the field in the first quarter and take a 32-30 edge. Denver quickly cooled off, as the Jazz took advantage of the Nuggets’ soft interior defense and surged to a 63-55 halftime lead behind Al Jefferson’s 13 points.
The Jazz dominated the rest of the game, as the Nuggets melted down. Only one of these teams looked like a genuine playoff contestant Friday, and it sure was not Denver.