Oklahoma City » Even before the clock hit midnight, the Jazz had an early contender for their most agonizing loss of 2010, falling 87-86 to the Oklahoma City Thunder and seeing red on New Year's Eve after a call in the closing seconds by a rookie referee.
The Jazz thought they had come up with the stop they needed as Kevin Durant missed a jumper, but referee Kane Fitzgerald whistled Paul Millsap for a loose-ball foul going after the rebound, sending Nick Collison to the foul line with 4.5 seconds left.
Collison rattled in his first free throw before draining his second. Ronnie Price missed a 21-footer from the wing at the buzzer. The Thunder celebrated their fifth consecutive victory while Jazz coach Jerry Sloan stormed onto the court and after Fitzgerald.
"I thought we had the game," Sloan said. "It looked like Paul had the ball in his hands down there and they called a foul on him. I don't know what happened on that play, I couldn't see it, but I'll be interested to see that play."
"We were tipping the ball, fighting for the ball," Millsap added. "I felt like I had it. He came in, he may have got it. The whistle blew and I got a foul. That's what happened. That's all I can say about it."
The Jazz came back from eight points down in the fourth quarter but left Ford Center empty in the end. As he folded the box score afterward, Sloan noted that the Jazz scored 62 points in the paint, yet Oklahoma City shot 28 free throws to his team's 17.
Asked about a rookie referee making such a game-deciding call, Sloan said: "It doesn't make any difference who it was. They all make mistakes, we make mistakes, I'd just like to see the play."
It ended up costing the Jazz a key Northwest Division game. The Thunder pulled even with the Jazz in the standings at 18-14 and bumped them out of the Western Conference's top eight, having already beaten Utah twice this season.
Sloan practically willed his team to the finish line in the second game of a back-to-back set. He was out of his seat, switching the Jazz into their 3-up zone defense and prodding them to push the ball.
He called a 20-second timeout only 2:12 into the second half and opted to play Deron Williams, Wesley Matthews and Price together down the stretch. Matthews had 14 points and battled Durant (31 points) on the defensive end.
"We had moments it looked like we didn't think we could win, didn't believe we could win, and then somebody else would pick it up and fight back," Sloan said.
Williams came alive in the last five minutes, stripping Durant and heading the other way for a dunk, then giving the Jazz an 86-85 lead with 58.1 seconds left when he drove on Thabo Sefolosha, drew contact and hit a hanging shot as part of a three-point play.
He finished with 14 points, but Williams' night likely will be remembered for this nugget he shared about Fitzgerald: "I asked him if he was a rookie, he got mad at me."
The Jazz inbounded to Williams after Collison's free throws for a final shot. With Russell Westbrook helping off Price, Williams gave up the ball, but Price couldn't connect. Price drew a charge on Westbrook in the final minute, but made just 1 of 6 shots.
Durant scored 30 points or more for the sixth consecutive game while Collison added 11 off the bench, cutting for a basket off an inbounds play with 1:05 remaining, though he failed to convert the three-point play.
Millsap, meanwhile, was asked if he ever thinks he is forever destined to remain a second-round draft pick in the eyes of the referees. He fouled out in 27 minutes Thursday.
"I don't even like to think about it," Millsap said. "I've just got to get out there and play basketball. What happens, happens. Let everything else decide for itself. I have no control over anything else that goes on but my play out there."
IN SHORT » The Jazz fall in no small part because of a call by rookie referee Kane Fitzgerald in the final seconds.
KEY MOMENT » Paul Millsap is whistled for a foul with 4.5 seconds left that give the Thunder two free throws.
KEY STAT » Both Mehmet Okur (4-for-17, 6 turnovers) and C.J. Miles (1-for-5, 2 points) struggle.