SALT LAKE CITY — Of all the ways to lose a game in a must-win situation, it's hard to envision the Jazz taking a bigger punch to the gut than they did against New Orleans on Thursday night.
With a victory seemingly in hand in the final seconds of regulation, Hornets center Emeka Okafor provided the rib-rattling jab. He banked in an off-balance shot at an awkward angle — shooting right while running left — as time expired to force overtime.
That shot knocked the wind out of the Jazz, and the Hornets pulled out a 121-117 victory in overtime. With the defeat, Utah (36-37) dropped below .500 for the first time since it was 2-3 after a loss to Golden State on Nov. 5.
"It's a hard pill to swallow," said Jazz forward Paul Millsap.
Millsap made two free throws with 1.3 seconds left in regulation to give Utah a 105-103 lead. The Hornets were out of timeouts, and made a desperation 60-foot, in-bounds pass to Chris Paul. The Jazz tipped it away, and Okafor collected it and sank his miraculous shot.
"I thought the game was over," said Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin. "In this league, you never know. Guys make spectacular plays."
Chalk it up as a learning experience for Corbin and Millsap. Both admitted after the game that Millsap probably should have missed the second foul shot. If the Hornets had gotten the rebound, it would have taken an even more miraculous shot than the one Okafor made to win it or force overtime.
"I'll take responsibility for it," Corbin said of Millsap making the second free throw. "I probably should have had him miss the second free throw."
Millsap also shouldered some blame.
"I should have known the situation," Millsap said after a spectacular performance in which he had 33 points and 11 rebounds. "I actually knew the situation. I probably should have missed it."
The Jazz still could have won it in overtime, but didn't match the Hornets' energy. After trading a couple of baskets, Trevor Ariza gave New Orleans a lead it wouldn't relinquish. He hit a 3-pointer to put the Hornets up 112-109.
On the Jazz's next possession, Millsap made a free throw and missed one — a few minutes too late. That got the Jazz within two points, but they would never get closer the rest of the way. New Orleans made enough free throws in the final minutes and got a big boost from reserve Aaron Gray, who scored six of his 10 points in overtime.
Gray made a layup to make it 114-110 and sank four free throws in the final minutes. He had eight rebounds — five of which were on the offensive end — and was a disruptive presence in the paint.
"Shout out, props, whatever you want it to call it to Aaron Gray," said Hornets coach Monty Williams. "He takes up a lot of space. He's stepped up and played every time I've put him in the game. He was the difference tonight."
Gray was in for David West, who suffered a scary injury with 6.7 seconds left in regulation. West landed awkwardly after a dunk, and was taken from the court in a wheelchair. New Orleans said he suffered "left knee trauma" with more details to come today.
It was an ugly sight for basketball fans, as well as Al Jefferson, who tore an ACL during the 2008-09 season as a member of the Timberwolves.
"I don't want to wish nothing on him," Jefferson said of West. "He's a great player. But the way he landed and came down reminded me how I did mine — exactly. It's sad. I hope he's OK. It just reminded me exactly how I did mine."
Jefferson had his 32nd double-double of the season with 22 points and 13 rebounds. West had 29 points, and Paul had 24 points and 12 assists for the Hornets.
The Jazz, in 11th place in the Western Conference, fell 4½ games behind eighth place Memphis with the loss. Although the defeat put Utah's playoff hopes in even more dire straits, the Jazz say they can hold their heads up.
The Jazz were without injured starters Andrei Kirilenko (left knee contusion) and Devin Harris (strained right hamstring). Utah also overcame a disastrous start in which it fell behind 9-0 a little more than 90 seconds into the contest.
The Jazz battled back, leading by as many as nine in the second quarter and six in the third quarter. They were just a missed free throw late in regulation away from snapping what is now a four-game losing streak.
"I think we played our heart out and proved that we're not going to give up on this season," Jefferson said. "We're going to fight to the end. Playing the way we played tonight, we just got to walk away with our head up on that one."