DENVER — Coach Jerry Sloan used the words "tough" and "difficult" to describe the Utah Jazz's 97-96 home loss to the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night.
Those adjectives could aptly describe Utah's first visit to the Pepsi Center this season — for a different reason, though.
The Jazz's setback Wednesday was a last-second heartbreaker, and they played with a shorthanded squad.
Just over three months ago, Utah was blown out by Denver, 110-88, the last time it played in the Mile High City to tip off the 2010-11 season.
"We definitely want to go in there and get a win after what they did to us that first time we went out there," Jazz forward C.J. Miles said. "Especially myself. I remember that game very well. I didn't play too well."
Actually, that would qualify as an accurate current description of the whole team, which has lost eight of 10 games and has struggled to an 8-12 record since its pre-Christmas road trip.
But considering the circumstances Wednesday — being without two-time All-Star Deron Williams (wrist), Andrei Kirilenko (ankle) and Mehmet Okur (back) — Sloan wasn't disappointed with the effort put out by his team.
That might be considered a positive sign of an eventual breakthrough.
"I think our guys are trying to fight back. I don't think they've shown any desire whatsoever not to try. I think they've played as hard as they can," the Hall of Fame coach said. "It's just that we made some mistakes that cost you a ballgame, so I can live with that.
"So," he added, "we'll get better hopefully."
Execution is one major area that continues to be a sore spot for the Jazz.
Utah only scored 14 points in the pivotal fourth quarter of Wednesday's loss, including just six in the final five minutes.
Sloan pointed out that the Jazz waited too long into possessions to make something happen late in the game, and veteran Raja Bell thought that was a consistent problem all night.
"I didn't think we executed anywhere ... it wasn't just the end of the game," Bell said. "If you go back (and look), we were on the shot clock all night. If you've got to play against the shot clock more than four or five possessions in the game, you're doing something wrong. We played against the shot clock continuously."
The Jazz (29-21) likely won't be within striking distance at the end of the game if that happens tonight against the Nuggets (29-20). Carmelo Anthony & Co. average 107.6 points, although they also give up 104.3 a night.
"They're a tough team to play — (a team) with energy. They get up and down the floor," Miles said. "Carmelo, of course, is one of the best scorers in the league. And the rest of those guys, they fill in. They shoot the 3-ball as well.
"We're just going to have to go out there and get our track shoes on and just play hard."
And more efficiently.
Bell called the Jazz's current offensive woes "pretty frustrating."
Said the starting shooting guard: "It just never feels like you're open."
Utah has only averaged 93.1 points in the last 10 games, bringing its average down to 99.4 ppg (only 0.3 points more than its opponents have scored).
"Denver's a much better team than the Houston Rockets, no disrespect to the Rockets. So there's a lot of stuff that we need to figure out," Bell said. "But I don't anticipate us coming out and not giving effort. I think we'll be there to play, but we'll have to execute a game plan offensively and defensively to have a chance against them."
Getting Williams and Kirilenko back would help, too. They're both day-to-day heading into tonight's ESPN-televised late game.
Okur, meanwhile, didn't travel with the team.
Utah, which is only three games away from being out of the playoff picture, returns home Saturday for a tough match-up with Oklahoma City.