SALT LAKE CITY — A lot of things have changed for the Utah Jazz since they were swept out of the NBA playoffs by the San Antonio Spurs last spring.
During the offseason, the Jazz acquired three difference-making players — point guard Mo Williams, shooting guard Randy Foye and small forward Marvin Williams — and those three guys were all in Utah's starting lineup Wednesday night when the Jazz took on the Spurs at EnergySolutions Arena.
What's more, second-year center Enes Kanter has emerged as a force to be reckoned with for the Jazz, third-year shooting guard Gordon Hayward has become a superb spark plug off the Utah bench, third-year big man Derrick Favors looks like he's gonna be the real deal in the future, and veteran center Al Jefferson has decided that playing some defense is a pretty darned good idea.
And, oh, by the way, something else has changed dramatically over the last seven months, too — the Jazz can actually beat the Spurs these days.
Lo and behold, a Utah franchise that had lost 11 of its previous 12 games against San Antonio, including that four-game postseason sweep which abruptly ended the Jazz's season last May, pulled out a dramatic 99-96 victory over the Spurs when Mo Williams splashed in a clutch 3-pointer at the final buzzer of a late-night matchup on ESPN.
"It's big," Mo Williams said of the victory. "I've got a lot of respect for their organization. They've been (winning) for a long time, an organization you try to model yourself after. But at the same time, you don't want to be the stepbrother forever."
San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich was not a happy man.
"That's a huge defensive error," he said of the Spurs leaving Williams open for the decisive shot. "What do you think a guy is going to do with two seconds on the clock? You make him drive. You don't step back on Mo Williams; that's why (Danny Green) was on him so we didn't have a small guy like Tony (Parker).
"We put a big guy on him for that one reason, to get up into him, and he backed off. Huge defensive error that cost us the game."
And hey, this time, the Spurs didn't leave their "Big Three" home to rest like they did in a game here last April and in a game a couple of weeks ago, when they got slapped with a $250,000 fine by the league for doing so.
Instead, San Antonio's talented trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were all on hand Wednesday night and had the Spurs — who came into the game boasting the league's best record of 18-4 — poised to put away the Jazz once again, as they led by eight points, 93-85, with under four minutes remaining to play.
But Jefferson, Hayward, Foye, Paul Millsap and Mo Williams had other ideas. Hayward hit a huge 3-pointer, Jefferson popped in a jumper, and Foye scored on a driving layup in a 7-1 run that trimmed the Spurs' lead to two, 94-92. Then Jefferson stole the ball and dunked it to tie things up at 94. After San Antonio regained a two-point edge, Millsap's jump shot in the lane deadlocked things again at 96 with 40 seconds left.
After Parker missed a potential go-ahead jumper, Mo Williams returned the favor by missing from 3-point range with 9.9 seconds to go.
But Millsap, who had a game-high 24 points and also pulled down a dozen rebounds to go along with five assists, corralled the board and Utah called timeout.
Given a second chance at the game-winner, Mo didn't disappoint and the crowd of 18,710 erupted as his 3-point shot swished through the net as time expired.
"I think we came into this game with a lot of confidence," Hayward, who had 19 points, seven rebounds and six assists off the bench, said following Utah's fourth straight win. "And this is just going to further enhance that confidence.
"We can't relax, though. Tonight we proved we could beat the best in the league, but you have to make sure when you go to play any team we have to play like this and continue to play Jazz basketball."
And hope that those winds of change keep blowing Utah's way.
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