Anyone wondering how the Jazz might respond to a tense finish with former teammate Al Jefferson opposing them Monday night could only watch appreciatively as they blew a 14-point lead against Charlotte.
The answers came in the last minute, when the Jazz trailed by one point. Gordon Hayward bounced a pass to Derrick Favors for a dunk, then Jefferson missed a short hook shot and Jazz rookie Trey Burke drove for a layup, basically securing an 83-80 victory at EnergySolutions Arena.
So the Jazz have five home-court victories this season, and critical misses by ex-Jazz stars Carlos Boozer of Chicago and Jefferson helped make two of them happen.
“In my opinion, we should have won,” Jefferson said, blaming himself.
The Bobcats relied heavily on Jefferson, like the Jazz of old, while the home team’s only choice was to create other game-winning possibilities in his absence.
“It is a little bit of a discovery,” Hayward said. “Like I said, it’s a growing year for us, so these experiences are really valuable.”
Of course, some would prefer those lessons to come in losses, worrying that the Jazz (10-24) are playing their way out of prime draft territory. But here’s the thing: If the Jazz beat Milwaukee — owner of the NBA’s worst record — on Thursday, they’ll be 10-11 since Burke became the starting point guard.
Who knows how different the dynamic of this season might be, if not for Burke’s broken finger. Maybe all the talk in town would not be so much about the lottery, but rather how the Jazz are learning to win without Jefferson, their go-to offensive player in recent history.
They haven’t totally figured it out, that’s for sure. The Jazz beat the Los Angeles Lakers last week via Hayward’s miss that Favors turned in a dunk, then faded badly the next night against the Clippers. Monday’s winning sequence featured two broken plays that Hayward and Burke managed to salvage with their driving abilities.
Last weekend in Atlanta, former Jazz teammates Paul Millsap and Jefferson combined for 57 points and 36 rebounds in the Hawks’ overtime victory. Yeah, the Jazz needed to pursue their rebuilding plan, but that dual performance had to make anyone wonder about letting them go via free agency — especially when nobody is quite emerging in Jefferson’s old job as a dependable late-game scorer.
“It’s been an adjustment process for them, to take a bigger responsibility,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said before the game. “We’re trying to grow guys into that role.”
The Bobcats like Jefferson, who’s providing the kind of leadership he brought to the Jazz. For a guy who never won a playoff game in three seasons, Jefferson deserves to be well-remembered in Utah, where he became embraceable as a player and a person. Jefferson was a positive force in the locker room, blending in well and guiding Enes Kanter and Favors.
“They’re my guys,” Jefferson said.
In Atlanta, Millsap posted 33 points and 13 rebounds to Jefferson’s 24 points and 23 boards. “I told Paul, that’s the first of many battles we’re going to have,” Jefferson said.
His reunions with the Jazz are fewer, but just as frustrating. The Jazz also won by three points in Charlotte this month.
Jefferson scored nine points in the fourth quarter Monday, but his last meaningful basket came with 2:53 remaining. His 18 points came on 8-of-22 shooting. Just to make himself feel worse, Jefferson delivered an uncontested 41-footer at the buzzer — only the fourth 3-pointer of his career in 44 attempts.
He turned and walked off the court, disgustedly.