Late defense propels Jazz to 120-100 victory over Timberwolves

(Rick Bowmer | AP Photo) Utah Jazz forward Royce O'Neale (23) defends against Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins during the second half during an NBA basketball game Thursday, March 14, 2019, in Salt Lake City.

The Jazz’s much-touted defense was hardly operating at peak efficiency Thursday night at Vivint Smart Home Arena.

Then again, once it kicked into gear midway through the third period, it was pretty good. Better yet, even at less than its best, it was still far superior to what the Timberwolves managed.

So while the game was perhaps lacking aesthetic appeal, and was frequently within too-close-for-comfort range, the end result was still ultimately the Jazz taking care of business and dispatching an undermanned opponent, 120-100.

“We just have to come out with that mindset every night. We had it in New Orleans, got away from it in Memphis, and I think it’s a little bit of a wake-up call,” said Donovan Mitchell. “We got right back to it. We have to continue the same mindset on defense and not let it falter in these upcoming games.”

The victory was the Jazz’s second straight, and boosted their record this season to 39-29.

Mitchell led the offensive effort with 24 points and six assists, Jae Crowder added 18 off the bench, and Derrick Favors (17 points, 11 rebounds) and Rudy Gobert (10 and 13) each contributed double-doubles. The latter also shut down Minnesota counterpart Karl-Anthony Towns in the fourth quarter, enabling Utah to finally pull away.

A sequence of sloppy offense and porous defense by the Jazz in the third quarter allowed Minnesota to rally within 71-70 with just less than eight minutes remaining in the period.

That, apparently, proved the proverbial dousing of cold water that Utah’s players were in need of to snap to full attention.

After a Quin Snyder timeout, the Jazz returned to the court catalyzed and energized. The turnovers abated and the ball started going in the hoop again. That, in combination with a sequence of stops on the other end, fueled a 7-0 run that ballooned the lead back to eight and gave the Jazz some much-needed breathing room.

“That happened last game — we got up, then kinda relaxed, and they got back in it,” Favors said, referencing a blown 14-point third-quarter lead Wednesday night in Phoenix. “… We had to come together and limit those turnovers and get back to playing defense.”

Of course, Favors also contributed a bit on the other end, too.

Between running the court and being efficient with his opportunities down low, he wound up making 8 of 12 shots; he also grabbed five offensive rebounds in yet another effective outing.

“ I know I’m not gonna be a big part of the offense most nights, so just being aggressive, finding my spots … just try to put pressure on the rim and on the offensive boards,” he said of his approach.

Mitchell wasn’t having any of that, though.

“Fav is a different animal right now,” the guard said. “He’s been doing his thing — he’s rebounding, he’s been running the floor, getting dunks. That rubs off on everybody else.”

Meanwhile, Towns was doing his part — almost single-handedly at times — to keep the Wolves in it.

After totaling just 9 first-half points on 3-of-4 shooting due to foul trouble, he went off in the third, hitting 5 of 9 attempts and racking up 14 points in the period.

One quarter later, with Gobert checking him, Towns’ impact was minimized. He scored just four points in the final period — partly thanks to the Frenchman issuing a monstrous rejection of a lay-in attempt — and fouled out with just over 4 minutes to play.

He exited with a line of 26 points, 12 rebounds, and four assists … and the Jazz leading 109-94.

“The biggest thing I can say about that matchup is it’s not about Rudy and KAT. When we’re in that mindset, we’re not as good," Snyder said. "… Obviously, what it is about is our whole team understanding that situation. … The more that we don’t make it about a singular matchup, particularly for Rudy, that’s when we’re good.”

The Jazz prevailed on this occasion because the team continued to progress as the game went along. Snyder hopes that serves as a microcosm for the remainder of his team’s games.

“I don’t think [the defense is] ever a finished product. … The key thing for us, I told the team the last however many games, whether it’s five or 10, we just need to keep trying to get better,” he added. “Whatever the defense is today, I want it to be better [Saturday vs. Brooklyn]. And if it’s not, let’s figure out how it can be. That mentality for us, on both sides of the ball, will serve us well — not worrying about who we’re playing or seeding or playoffs or anything, but just trying to get better.”