Jazz hold off Kings to move up to fifth in Western Conference

Sacramento Kings center Kosta Koufos (41) fouls Utah Jazz forward Derrick Favors in the first half during an NBA basketball game Saturday, March 17, 2018, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Seldom have the Utah Jazz been this complimentary to an opponent this season.

Sure, they always say the right things. But, on Saturday night, following a 103-97 win over the Sacramento Kings, the Jazz locker room was a Sacramento love fest.

“They played so much better than their record,” Jae Crowder said.

“That team has a lot of talent. They deserve credit,” Rudy Gobert said.

In the grind of a playoff race, the Kings strolled into Salt Lake City and gave the Jazz everything they wanted. They hit shots at a high clip. They defended with vigor. On the second night of a back-to-back, they were the team playing with high energy. And they resembled the Terminator — seemingly every time the Jazz had them beaten, the Kings found life.

For that reason, Utah coach Quin Snyder was complimentary of his own team. Yes, the Jazz have been one of the most dominant teams in the league the past six weeks. But, Snyder knew a game like this could happen, where an underdog provides his team with a test.

On Saturday night, before a sellout crowd at Vivint Smart Home Arena, the Jazz passed that test. And it wasn’t easy.

“I think in many ways, this is one of our best wins of the season,” Snyder said. “They were really hard to guard. They were cutting like crazy. They were attacking the rim and kicking out. And they were aggressive in transition. I think as much as anything, you kind of get a feel for the game and our guys raised their level a little bit.”

In the midst of the Western Conference playoff race, the Jazz were able to breathe in the moments following, while others around them faltered — chief among them the Denver Nuggets, who lost to a Memphis Grizzlies team that was on a 19-game losing stream.

That’s one of the reasons the Jazz felt good about the win. They are in the midst of a string of games they are expected to win. A loss in one of these games would be devastating.

Instead, they find themselves fifth in the Western Conference at the end of the night.

Gobert who made the biggest play and did the most damage on Saturday night. With 33 seconds remaining and the Jazz nursing a 96-94 lead, Utah’s star center blocked Bogdan Bogdanovic at the rim, preventing Sacramento from tying the game.

Gobert then went to the line and made a pair of clutch free-throws to give the Jazz a 100-94 lead with 23 seconds remaining, and later punctuated the game with a dunk. The big man finished with 22 points, 13 rebounds and four blocked shots. It was his third straight game with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds, and his 25th double-double of the season.

“I was just trying to stay focused,” Gobert said. “I wanted to make sure they didn’t score. Joe Ingles did a great job of making him drive and taking away the three. I had to block it.”

On the whole, the Jazz didn’t play well. They shot 6-of-24 from 3-point range and 44 percent overall from the field. They turned the ball over 15 times, nine times in the first half. The bench provided 15 points — 11 from Crowder.

But, the Jazz have developed star power in the past two months, and that proved to be the difference. Rookie Donovan Mitchell was unguardable for most of the night, and finished with a game-high 28 points. Gobert was a rock in the middle.

In support, Ingles had 14 points, nine assists and seven rebounds. He also held Bogdanovic to 5-of-17 shooting from the field. Ricky Rubio had 14 points, nine rebounds and five assists as Utah moves to 40-30 on the season.

“That was a good basketball game,” Sacramento coach Dave Joerger said. “I’m proud of our guys. We fought our tail off and scrapped and competed. I’m just really, really proud of our guys.”