Not even four months ago, the Jazz were humiliated Jan. 2 on their home court by a Denver Nuggets team missing both Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, dropping to 18-15 in the midst of a season heading in questionable direction.
Now? The Jazz stand just one victory away from a memorable first-round upset of the Nuggets -- a team that beat them three of four times during the regular season -- with their shorthanded playoff run growing more enthralling almost by the day.
The Jazz turned their first Sunday night home playoff game since the 1998 NBA Finals into a revival celebration of their fortunes, building a 20-point lead in third quarter and holding on for a 117-106 Game 4 victory at a sold-out EnergySolutions Arena.
"I think we've probably executed better than any time during the year," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said, "and I think we've tried to defend better than any time during the year."
Carlos Boozer totaled 31 points and 13 rebounds and Deron Williams had 24 points and 13 assists, but Kyrylo Fesenko might have been the 7-foot-1, 300-pound Ukrainian embodiment of how far the Jazz have come.
Forced into the game after Paul Millsap fouled out with 5:33 left, Fesenko converted two free throws with 2:03 remaining to give the Jazz a 111-100 lead, shaking off three years of struggles as a career 40.2 percent foul shooter.
"After I made the first one, I don't know, I was so happy that I made the first one, and after I made the second one, I realized that we're going to win this game," said Fesenko, who had six points, five rebounds and, yes, went 4-for-7 at the foul line.
As he mentioned Fesenko's name afterward, Anthony paused when he realized what he was saying: "Fesenko? Don't get me wrong, he's playing extremely well. He's playing with a lot of confidence, but Fesenko?"
With the victory, the Jazz took a 3-1 lead that only eight teams in NBA history have overcome to win a series. The last to do so was Phoenix in the 2006 first-round against the Lakers. The Jazz can close out this series as soon as Wednesday's Game 5 in Denver.
"You can either do two things," Boozer said of life without injured starters Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur. "You can crumble when you've got a couple starters that are on the team out, or you can come together and fight with each other.
"That's what we've been doing we've been doing, we've been fighting together and playing good basketball."
It may be wishful thinking, but the Jazz also can entertain the possibility should they advance of facing eighth-seeded Oklahoma City in the conference semifinals, with the Thunder and Lakers tied 2-2 in their series.
The Nuggets trailed 86-68 entering the fourth quarter but closed within 90-79 on Anthony's three-pointer with 9:33 left. Anthony was called for his fifth personal on a loose-ball foul but Denver kept coming, eventually getting the Jazz lead down to single digits.
Chauncey Billups' three-pointer made it 98-90 and Millsap fouled out 23 seconds later on an illegal screen. That brought in Fesenko for easily the most important minutes of his young career.
"When Paul fouled out, I realized that my heart is somewhere like in my heels," Fesenko said. "I was like, 'Who else is on the bench?' And then I realized that there is nobody, like I am the closest one. I'm like, 'OK, pull it together.' "
The Nuggets made it 100-93 after Kenyon Martin's three-point play, but Fesenko rattled in a dunk as he was fouled, though he couldn't complete the three-point play. C.J. Miles hit a jumper to keep the Jazz's lead at nine and Billups fouled out with 3:46 left.
Fesenko's free throws then helped seal the victory, with Sloan saying approvingly, "I think it should give him some confidence as he moves forward with his career." Not that Fesenko came away believing he'd finally turned a corner at the foul line.
Asked if he'd ever be nervous again, Fesenko said, "I can promise you that, I can promise you that."
Anthony finished with 39 points, giving him an average of 34.5 in this series, but was the only Nuggets player to score in double figures through three quarters. The Nuggets were outscored 32-23 in the third quarter and 64-43 in the period combined in Games 3 and 4.
"It's definitely been three team victories in a row," Williams said after the Jazz shot 53.2 percent to Denver's 44.0 percent. The Nuggets managed just 13 assists for the night and unraveled in the final minutes of the second quarter.
The Jazz took a 54-45 lead into halftime and poured it on as Miles hit two jumpers as well as a three-pointer. Boozer kept the ball on the break for a three-point play and Williams posted up Ty Lawson for another. Kosta Koufos even scored during a cameo appearance.
"Deron and Booz have kept everyone confident on the floor," said Miles, who had 21 points, "and at the same time done their jobs by taking over the games when they had to, and we're just going to keep on pushing."
Gordon Monson » The series isn't officially over, but Denver is done. › D3
Kurt Kragthorpe » Jazz have come a long way since series opener. › D4
Steve Luhm » Utah needed Boozer to deliver; he was Mailman-esque. › D4
Key factor » Jazz did what they do best: Locked down on 'D'. › D5
Jazz notes » Williams appreciates Miller's ticket gesture. › D6
Nuggets notes » Denver improves its scoring, but not quite enough. › D6
In short » The Jazz take advantage as Denver unravels in the third quarter, then hold on for the victory in the fourth quarter to take a commanding 3-1 series lead.
Key moment » Kyrylo Fesenko proves his two second-quarter free throws are no fluke, converting at the line with 2:03 left in the fourth.
Key stat » The Jazz are now 8-0 this season in games Fesenko has started and 7-0 in TNT-televised games.
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