Nothing has come easy for the Utah Jazz this year.
So even with a 10-point lead and three minutes to play Friday night at EnergySolutions Arena, win No. 24 was anything but certain.
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As a few fans made early exits, the New Orleans Pelicans whittled down the Utah advantage over the game’s final minutes. And with the shot clock off, they nearly tied it. Forward Darius Miller had a wide-open look at 3 when Jazz player Marvin Williams blew a defensive assignment.
"We said in the timeout, ‘Don’t leave a 3-point shooter,’?" Jazz coach Ty Corbin said. "[Williams] knew right when he left it was the wrong thing to do. He must have felt my heart drop. He looked right at me and knew immediately he made a mistake."
On this night, however, it didn’t cost them a victory.
The Jazz topped the Pelicans 100-96, snapping a five-game losing streak and improving their overall record to 24-53 on the year.
Even as he watched a double-digit lead erode, Jazz swingman Gordon Hayward said he was certain of victory.
"I knew we had it," said Hayward, who had 21 points, six assists and four rebounds. "We’ve been in that situation before. So I think that’s where some of the earlier games we had during the season help you out, because you’ve kind of been there. They made a little run but we were able to hold them off."
With New Orleans star Anthony Davis sidelined in the third quarter with back spasms, Jazz forward Derrick Favors scored 14 of his 20 points.
The Jazz looked to be pulling away for good in the fourth quarter, thanks to a couple of key steals and easy buckets that pushed the lead up to 10.
Then things started going wrong. Alec Burks was spun to the ground by Pelicans big man Greg Stiemsma, but Burks was whistled for traveling. Stiemsma went on to convert a bucket on one end and deny Burks, who finished with 21 points, a layup on the other.
With Davis limited to just 23 minutes, New Orleans swingman Anthony Morrow stepped up, scoring a game-high 26 points off the bench. His 3-pointer with 21 seconds left brought the Pelicans within 2 points.
But the Jazz made just enough free throws — and the Pelicans missed just enough shots — to let the Jazz hold on down the stretch.
With the Boston Celtics falling to the Philadelphia 76ers, the Jazz are now a full game ahead of Boston. In terms of lottery position, that means they’re now a full game behind the Celtics for the fourth best chance at the top pick.
But with six games left in the season, the Jazz are still hungry for wins.
"You have to turn that switch on," Hayward said. "Regardless of the fact that we’re not in the playoffs there’s still a lot to play for. There’s pride on the line."
Wins have been especially rare of late. Friday’s victory was just the team’s third in its last 19 games.
"It’s been a long year for these guys," Corbin said. "They’ve been through a lot. We just have to have everybody focused on what we have to do to give us a chance to be successful. Finish strong. We’re not just out here to try to get the games over. We have to continue to develop."
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