SALT LAKE CITY — Before Wednesday’s game against the Utah Jazz, Indiana’s Frank Vogel, the head coach of the NBA’s stingiest squad, was asked how to build a defensive-minded team.
“Step No. 1 is to get good defensive players,” he said. “And that’s what we have.”
Step No. 2?
Mimic what the Pacers did to the Jazz from the final four minutes of the second quarter until the end of the visitors’ 95-86 victory at EnergySolutions Arena.
The athleticism, foot speed, physicality and “exceptional” position-by-position defense Vogel described his players as possessing was on full display — much to the Jazz’s chagrin.
Vogel’s pregame defensive missive: “We want to take their airspace.”
The Jazz can finally breathe again. Indiana left town, but not until putting a chokehold on the home team, going on a half-ending 14-4 run, holding Utah to a measly 38 second-half points and dominating the fourth quarter.
“They’re good defensively,” Jazz shooting guard Gordon Hayward said. “They challenge a lot of shots at the rim. It forced us to shoot over the top and we didn’t knock those down.”
The Jazz opened the game looking like the team that had won three of four games and had turned the corner offensively. Utah jumped ahead 12-2 and held a 44-33 lead with four minutes remaining in the first half.
That’s when the Jazz turned the corner offensively and saw way too much of the Pacers’ 7-foot-2 brick wall known as Roy Hibbert, athletic wings Paul George and Lance Stephenson, and a handful of other players who don’t mind invading one’s personal space.
Suddenly, the Jazz (4-16), who had surpassed the 100-point scoring mark in three straight contests, had as many offensive problems as they had while losing 14 of their first 15 games.
Utah had the scoring lapse at the end of the second quarter, went three minutes without a point at the end of the third, and then only put up nine points for the first 8 1/2 minutes of the decisive final period.
A one-point lead in the opening minute of the fourth quarter disintegrated into a 12-point deficit with 3:22 remaining.
Game — and two-game winning streak — over.
“I thought their defense got aggressive. We got a little stagnant,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. “They pushed us off our spots a little bit. It’s a good defensive team. We missed a couple tough shots. They put pressure on us a little bit, threw our rhythm off.”
The result spoiled a big night for the Jazz’s young bigs.
Power forward Derrick Favors had another strong showing with game highs of 22 points and 13 rebounds, while center Enes Kanter added 20 points and 10 rebounds after starting in place of injured Marvin Williams (sore heel).
“Today, Marvin and Jeremy (Evans, flu) was out. They are a big part of our family and the team,” Kanter said. “We had to step up.”
Jazz rookie point guard Trey Burke continued his ever-improving play, dishing out a career-high nine assists to go with 13 points. But Hayward (12 points) and Alec Burks (11 points) were the only other Utah players in double figures, and the team shot just 41.3 percent from the field.
“We were in the game. It’s something where we give ourselves an opportunity and we just didn’t close it out,” Hayward said. “They’re a solid team. Hopefully, we can learn from this one.”
Hayward, the Jazz’s leading scorer, struggled in his always-anticipated matchup with Indiana’s rising star, George. The Jazz player, taken one spot ahead of George at No. 9 in the 2010 draft, slipped back into his shooting slump with a 3-for-14 night.
To Hayward’s credit, George was held below his scoring average of 24.9 points, fourth-best in the NBA. The Eastern Conference player of the month for November had 19 points but hit only 7 of 20 shots, including going 1 for 8 from 3-point range.
“It was so hard to find my wind. My chest was burning,” George said, referring to Salt Lake City’s 4,400-foot altitude. “I just didn’t want to make no excuses tonight. I tried to play through it and just find a way to get a win tonight.”
Five other Pacers scored in double figures as the team bounced back from Monday’s tough loss in Portland to improve to 17-2. Indiana, which is holding teams to an NBA-low 87.5 points, broke a six-game losing streak in Utah, including last year’s overtime setback.
“Really good win for our guys,” Vogel said. “Kind of a grind-it-out type of game.”
One that Hayward, an Indiana native, will certainly hear about from friends back home who are Pacers fans. He chuckled softly when asked if he’d answer any calls from the Hoosier State after this loss.
“I probably already have text messages,” he said. “I’ll just ignore those.”
NOTES: Burke, who’s only played in eight NBA games, has now scored in double figures in five straight contests. Former Indiana guard Brandon Rush scored for the first time this season in a Jazz uniform. He finished with two points and only took one first-half shot. Center Andris Biedrins, who also played, is the only Utah player to have not scored this season. The Pacers’ last win in Salt Lake City was on Nov. 29, 2005.
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