Playoffs start right now for us. These are all playoff games. We must win. It's a big road trip for us. It's good to start off with a win. —Jazz center Al Jefferson
HOUSTON — Recent talk has centered around how many players the Utah Jazz don't have.
Because of injuries, they're down five guys (and, no, that's not a burger-joint reference). Raja Bell, Josh Howard, C.J. Miles, Earl Watson and Jeremy Evans are all hobbled, leaving Utah with only 10 available players, including one fresh out of the D-League.
But the Jazz still have their version of the Big 3: Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors.
They still have their baby-faced assassin, Gordon Hayward.
And, yep, they still have the Junkyard Dog aka DeMarre Carroll, whose hustle packed a mean bite Wednesday night at the Toyota Center.
Another thing they still have?
Strong playoff hopes.
The Jazz remained alive and well in their pursuit to earn a postseason spot after the aforementioned players — not to leave out contributors Devin Harris, Jamaal Tinsley, Alec Burks and Enes Kanter — pounded out a 103-91 victory over the Houston Rockets.
"They just responded," Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. "I'm so proud of this group, because they continue to lay it on the line every night they step on the floor."
Put this one up there in the best-wins-of-the-season category along with victories over the Heat, Lakers and Thunder.
The Jazz talked about this being a big game, and they came out and turned it into a big W despite the depleted bench and the fact that they've struggled on the road all season.
"The mentality now is we've just got to find ways to win," Hayward said. "This was a huge win for us as a team. I don't think you can ever doubt the heart of our team. We're down to 10 players now and we're just out there fighting, competing, just trying to find ways to win."
Especially from him.
The ever-improving Hayward attacked the Rockets from inside, aggressively scoring in transition and attacking the basket like a veteran.
The more confident 22-year-old also had his stroke on from the outside, hitting 4 of 5 3-pointers.
Hayward helped carry the team offensively in the first half, and then he kept shouldering the load in the second en route to a season-high 29 points.
"When I seen him last year, I knew he was going to be a great player. He just have all the tools," Jefferson said. "But just to watch it happen right in front of my eyes, it's just amazing to see."
Couldn't have asked for better timing, either. Hayward, who's had double-figure scoring in nine straight games, dished out six assists, to boot.
"My teammates did a great job of finding me early on. That kind of got me going a little bit," Hayward said. "Devin made some great passes, the transition shots. I was able to get some spot-up threes early and it just kind of went from there."
While Hayward led the offensive charge — Millsap added 21 points — it was Carroll's dynamic defense that helped get things going for the Jazz on the other end.
Twice, the third-year forward who was waived just two months ago by Denver crashed into the stands while making hustle plays. On one occasion, Carroll untangled himself from chairs after forcing a turnover, burst back to the opposite end of the court and scored a layup.
"That's what I did in college. That's why they used to call me Junkyard Dog — just diving in a crowd and do the little things," said Carroll, who scored 10 points with seven assists. "I think when you do that and you be aggressive, your team feed (off) you and they piggyback with you, and that's what everybody started doing."
To wit, the Jazz trailed 19-13 only a moment prior to Carroll's two-sided highlight play, and they ended the quarter with a four-point lead.
"That's who he is. That's who we love. That's why Kevin brought him in and thought he was a guy we should really consider and look at," Corbin said. "Man, he's showing right now what he can do."
Utah kept up that gritty defensive edge for almost the entire game — save a Houston push midway through the second half — while holding the Rockets to a season-low 35.6 percent shooting.
"From the beginning, he set the tone and everybody else stepped up to his energy," Jefferson said of Carroll, filling in for injured Miles' starting small forward spot. "I think that's what won the game."
Houston, as could be expected, rallied out of an 18-point hole and got within four in the fourth quarter. But the Jazz, almost desperate for a win to stay 11/2 games back out of a playoff spot, dominated down the stretch to run away with this hard-earned victory.
The Jazz shot 51.3 percent to improve to 31-28 overall and 10-20 on the road, with back-to-back games in New Orleans and Memphis starting Friday.
"Playoffs start right now for us. These are all playoff games," Jefferson said. "We must win. It's a big road trip for us. It's good to start off with a win."