SALT LAKE CITY — Sports organizations often give calendars, bobblehead dolls, magnets or other team-related trinkets to a limited number of fans when they arrive to the arena before games.
The Utah Jazz should’ve given spectators who endured Monday night’s game at EnergySolutions Arena free rein to the prize closet.
By glancing at the final score, some people might say the Jazz gave their crowd the gift of a 106-99 victory over the Sacramento Kings.
Then again, those people who say that were probably watching paint dry, infomercials, C-SPAN or something much more exciting than the ugly ending of Utah’s win.
Then again (part two), the Jazz aren’t complaining.
Murmuring about the beauty level of a victory isn’t something a team does when it picks up its 16th win in the 45th game of the season.
Better yet, that positive outcome improved the Jazz’s record to 16-29, which is a half-game better than the Kings’ 15-29 mark. It wasn’t pretty and took almost three months, but Utah doesn’t have the worst record in the Western Conference for the first time in the 2013-14 season.
That distinction now belongs to short-handed Sacramento, which used a desperate strategy to try to avoid hitting the bottom of the West’s standings and losing its fourth game in a row.
“It is definitely a relief. You get tired of seeing yourself down there at the bottom,” Jazz point guard Trey Burke said. “But that goes to show how hard we’ve been working the last couple of months (after) just digging ourselves a hole in the beginning of the year.”
Utah's 1-14 start was even uglier than this Monday night fright. Since then, though, the Jazz have gone 15-15 while working their way out of the bottom of the NBA standings. For better (pride) or worse (lottery positioning), the Jazz are now tied with the Lakers for the sixth-worst record in the NBA.
Now, about the part of this game that might even have a hard time scoring a blind date.
Despite a slow start, the Jazz went ahead by 20 points early in the fourth quarter when Gordon Hayward split a pair of free throws.
Little did the Jazz know, but that hit-and-miss trip at the foul line was a sign of things to come.
Ahead 97-81 following a mid-range jumper by Enes Kanter with 4:20 remaining, the Jazz spent the final minutes trying to secure their second win in a row at the free-throw line.
Remember Hack-a-Shaq? Or even the Hack-a-Andris-Biedrins strategy the Kings employed in their 112-102 overtime victory over the Jazz in December?
Sacramento coach Mike Malone, missing injured DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay for the game and ill point guard Isaiah Thomas for the fourth quarter, utilized the Hack-Every-Jazz-Reserve strategy in the final few minutes.
Oddly enough, the ploy worked. Not enough to get the Kings a victory, but enough to help them whittle away at the Jazz’s lead and drag out the fourth quarter for an excruciatingly long 40 minutes.
With its subs on the court, Utah only hit 9 of 20 free throws down the stretch and 12 of 25 in the fourth quarter to allow Sacramento to get closer than the Jazz would’ve preferred in what seemed to be a blowout.
Eight game-time minutes after going ahead by 20, the Jazz’s lead dwindled down to five, 104-99, when Kings rookie guard Ben McLemore made a three-point play with a half-minute left.
“We fell into it. We’ve got to make free throws,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. “It worked for them, so they’ll continue to do it.”
In those closing minutes, Jeremy Evans hit 3 of 6 free throws, Rudy Gobert went 1 for 4, Kanter made 2 of 4, John Lucas III split four freebies and Diante Garrett made 1 of 2 from the charity stripe.
If you missed it while doing the dishes, consider yourself lucky.
“Does it get under the skin of players? I don’t know, it probably (does),” Jazz center Derrick Favors said. “Guys on the court are probably ready to get the game over with, too. At the same time, they’ve just got to understand that they’re trying to do something. We’ve just got to be focused and hit the free throws.”
Fortunately for the Jazz, Kings sub Ray McCallum turned the ball over and then missed a 3-pointer to end Sacramento’s rally.
Otherwise, the Jazz, who went 35 for 53 from the free-throw line for the game, still might be punishing the rim with time stopped.
Don’t expect an apology from Malone.
“I’m always going to (do that), whether it’s young guys, old guys, middle-aged guys. I’m always going to do everything I can to extend the game and give us a chance to win,” said Sacramento's coach. “It slows the game down, it stops the clock, and it gives us extra possessions. We went from being completely out of the game to making it interesting.”
The Jazz fell behind 8-2 early on, but built a big lead after scoring 30 in the second quarter and 31 in the third.
Favors finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds for his 15th double-double, Marvin Williams ended with 16 points and 11 rebounds, and Evans added 14 points and 10 boards despite being poked in the eye in the second quarter.
"It was a great win," Burke said. "We came out with more intensity today. ... We did what it took to get a win tonight."
They'll probably do what it takes to hit free throws for the next few days.
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