Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — There have been some recent blowout defeats, and a late-game meltdown against the Los Angeles Clippers wasn’t pretty.
But Monday’s game was the latest example that the Utah Jazz are getting better at closing out games, something the squad struggled with way more often than not to begin the season.
In the final minute of the Jazz’s 83-80 win over the Charlotte Bobcats, Derrick Favors and Trey Burke both hit big buckets and the defense clamped down (and got lucky on an Al Jefferson miss) to close out strongly.
It was the fourth time in seven games the Jazz outclutched their opponent down the stretch.
Two weeks ago, Favors had a big defensive play in the waning moments of the Jazz’s 86-82 win at Orlando.
Also on that pre-Christmas trip, Burke then hit a key 3-pointer and late free throws to seal the 88-85 victory at Charlotte on Dec. 21.
And, most dramatically, Favors followed a Gordon Hayward miss with an emphatic putback slam with two seconds remaining to push the Jazz past the Lakers 105-103 on Friday.
Yes, those wins were all against teams with sub-.500 records, but the 10-24 Jazz will take the improvement, especially after beginning the season 1-14.
Learning how to play well in crunch time is obviously an important thing the team has to learn as it continues to develop if it wants to get on the “championship-caliber” path management has talked about so often.
“We made some mistakes, but I think a lot of these games for this young group of guys is about learning how to finish games,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. “Hopefully, we will finish teams off without making it close.”
The Jazz have only won three times this season by more than six points, so they have some work to do in that department.
Conversely, Utah fell apart in the final minutes Saturday at Staples Center in a 98-90 loss to the Clippers. L.A. scored the final eight points after Burke tied the game at 90 with free throws at the 2:32 mark.
GOOD MEMORIES: Jefferson, now with his fourth NBA team, has sweeter memories in Utah than his new squad’s 83-80 loss to the Jazz on Monday.
When he first arrived in Utah, Jefferson was thrilled to team up with Jerry Sloan and Deron Williams after being traded from Minnesota before the 2010-11 season.
Big Al excitedly envisioned getting to the All-Star game and winning in the playoffs with D-Will, neither of which happened before Williams was shipped to New Jersey later that season.
You might think Jefferson’s last home game in Utah would’ve been his most memorable one. He did, after all, score 40 points and grab 13 rebounds to keep the Jazz in playoff contention in that April 12 contest, a 107-100 win against Minnesota last spring.
His favorite Jazz memory happened a year earlier when he returned after getting two stitches in a gash above his eye to score eight straight points late in the fourth quarter of a 100-88 win over Phoenix. The victory clinched a playoff berth.
“Paul Millsap had a great night, kept us in it the whole time,” he recalled. “I just remember hitting the last eight points to kind of seal it. That was my second time ever going to the playoffs. That’s the game that just always stands out to me.”
NOT BITTER: This past July, Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey informed Jefferson’s camp that the organization was going a different direction when it didn’t bring back any of its veteran free agents in order to pave way for guys like Favors and Enes Kanter.
“I respected them because it just really didn’t make sense to bring me back. You’ve got to let them guys (Kanter and Favors) develop and get that experience,” Jefferson said. “I would have loved to come back. Once they told me that (I wasn’t), Charlotte was the next team that showed me a lot of interest and wanted me to be a part of their family.”
MISC: The Jazz had Tuesday off but will be back at practice on New Year’s Day. Players (and reporters) get to sleep in a couple of hours later than usual, though. The practice is at noon instead of the usual 10 a.m. start. The Jazz are 5-1 when rookie Trey Burke scores 20 or more points. Burke scored 21 in Utah’s win Monday. Burke has moved into the No. 2 spot on NBA.com’s “Rookie Ladder” behind Sixers’ point guard Michael Carter-Williams. Burke had been third behind Orlando’s Victor Oladipo, who switched spots with the surging Jazz player this past week
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