(The Sports Xchange) - After being one of the hottest teams in the NBA before the All-Star break, the Utah Jazz were in danger of losing more ground in the playoff race Tuesday night.
Despite a hot-shooting performance, the Jazz lost a double-digit lead and came close to dropping 1 1/2 games behind the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference standings.
Instead, the second-least-experienced team in the NBA did something it has struggled to do for years: winning a close game.
Houston guard James Harden led all scorers with 42 points, but forward Gordon Hayward and the Jazz spoiled his big night with an important 117-114 overtime victory over the Rockets.
“This was not like a real pretty game by any means, but it’s a game that we won,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said. “We got a group that’s learning how to do that.”
Hayward scored 28 points despite only taking seven shots from the field (and making six). He went 13-for-15 from the foul line and hit three of four 3-pointers. He also had seven rebounds and five assists.
Hayward returned to action after being poked in the eye in the fourth quarter.
“It was just hard to focus, honestly, just blurry for a good 10 minutes,” he said. “I had to get back in the game, though, and had to do what I could to get back. ... (I’m) proud of this win. We needed it.”
Power forward Derrick Favors contributed 19 points and 12 rebounds for Utah. Favors made a key put-back bucket late in overtime, and the Rockets missed two game-tying 3-point attempts in the final seconds.
The Jazz desperately needed to win after losing three of four games, including a tough 115-111 defeat at Portland on Sunday. Utah (28-28) replaced Houston (28-29) in the West’s eighth and final playoff position.
Utah also received key contributions from shooting guard Rodney Hood (18 points, including a pair of timely 3-pointers late in regulation and overtime), point guard Shelvin Mack (17 points in his first Jazz start) and backup point guard Trey Burke (15 points off the bench).
“To have multiple guys be able to make plays was really important,” Snyder said. “It wasn’t pretty all the time offensively, but when we didn’t turn it over, we were able to make things happen. It makes the game hard when there’s that much pressure.”
Harden hit 16 of 30 shots, but the Rockets couldn’t take the lead in overtime after extending the game with a nice comeback late in the fourth quarter.
Center Dwight Howard scored 13 points and grabbed 16 rebounds, forward Trevor Ariza added 18 points, and guard Patrick Beverley scored 14 in the loss.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys who have made big-time shots for us and big plays, and they did it tonight,” Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “It’s just we needed a couple of stops, that was the most important thing.”
Houston stayed in the game despite being outshot by the Jazz 51.4 percent to 41.4 percent. The Jazz committed 22 turnovers, leading to 29 points for the Rockets.
The Jazz led for most of the overtime session but couldn’t quite shake the Rockets. Beverley tied the game at 112-all with 1:13 remaining.
Utah answered right back, however, as Hood sank a 3-pointer over Howard for a 115-112 lead.
Harden quickly responded with a layup, but Favors followed a miss on the other end to give Utah a 117-114 edge.
“It’s not about where we are in the standings,” Harden said. “It’s about us continuing to fight and play the right way. I don’t think we did that tonight. They made some tough shots.”
Houston guard Jason Terry helped force overtime by hitting a game-tying corner 3-pointer with 11 seconds remaining.
Utah had a chance to win in regulation, but Hayward couldn’t shake a feistily defending Ariza. After the ball was poked away, the Jazz forward had to settle for a badly missed half-court heave at the buzzer.
Utah used a 7-0 run midway through the fourth quarter to take a 98-92 lead. The Rockets kept chipping away and seized a 101-100 lead after a 3-pointer by Ariza and free throws from Harden.
Hood responded with a 3-pointer, and the Jazz went up 105-101 after Favors blocked a shot on one end and made a bucket on the other end.
Harden kept Houston alive with a layup with 17.9 seconds remaining.
Hayward then did the Rockets a favor by splitting a pair of free throws, after which Terry tied it with his clutch shot in front of the Utah bench.
The Jazz shot 58 percent in the first half but blew an opportunity to gain a big lead by making a slew of turnovers. Houston forced Utah into 16 first-half turnovers, converting them into 23 points.
Utah still held a 56-51 lead at the break, but it could’ve been much larger. The Rockets only had nine turnovers in the opening half, 14 in the game.
Compiled by Peter Rutherford