We’ve got a great opportunity in front of us, which will be fun. We’ve been good in back-to-backs all year and I already know the atmosphere is going to be great with the fans tomorrow night. —Gordon Hayward
DENVER — Prior to Sunday’s pivotal game against Denver, Jazz coach Quin Snyder didn’t want to talk about Friday night’s debacle against the Clippers, or what his team’s mindset was coming into the game or anything about the team’s playoff status. He said it all came down to one thing.
“Collectively for us, it’s about our defense,” he said. “If we defend, we put ourselves in a position to win. As much as we’ve got to win — the season’s on the line — that’s where our focus needs to be, on defense.”
Snyder got his wish in a big way as the Jazz came up with one of their top defensive performances of the year in defeating Denver 100-84 Sunday afternoon at the Pepsi Center.
The Jazz completely shut down the Nuggets over the final 6:56 of the third quarter when they went on an astonishing 24-0 run to put the game away. Rudy Gobert was a catalyst, getting three of his six blocked shots of the game while Gordon Hayward also got a block and two big steals for layups.
“It’s all about trying to defend,” said Snyder. “We were talking about every possession, every possession, just take them one at a time and keep trying to get stops. That was the focus and our guys executed it.”
To say this was a must-win game is an understatement. After a dreadful performance in a loss against the L.A. Clippers JV team Friday night, the Jazz needed a win to stay in position to claim one of the Western Conference’s last two playoff spots.
The victory moved the Jazz to 40-40 on the year, hot on the heels of Dallas, which lost to the Clippers Sunday to fall to 41-39 and a game ahead of Houston, which defeated the Lakers Sunday. The Jazz and Mavericks play Monday night in a huge game that could determine each team’s playoff destiny this year.
“I don’t have to talk a whole lot about it, it speaks for itself,” said Snyder of Monday’s game. “There’s significant things at stake, not the be-all and end-all, but pretty close. You’re going to see two teams that really want to compete.”
In Sunday’s game, the Jazz had taken an early 10-point lead in the first quarter only to see the Nuggets come back to lead by seven in the second quarter. Midway through the third quarter, the Nuggets took a 62-58 lead when IT happened.
The Jazz suddenly caught fire on offense and dug in on the defensive side. It began with a Hayward block on defense and a Shelvin Mack 3-pointer on the offensive end. A couple of free throws by Gobert gave the Jazz the lead for good and then Hood and Mack hit back-to-back 3-pointers.
Then came Hayward’s two big plays, steals off passes by Emmanuel Mudiay and Will Barton in a 25-second span that both turned into layups. By the end of the quarter the Jazz led 82-62 thanks to the 24-0 run.
Hayward shrugged off his back-to-back steals, saying, “I just played the passing lane and the ball came to me.”
Hayward led the Jazz with 22 points along with rookie Trey Lyles, who got a last-minute start in place of Derrick Favors, who is nursing a sore knee. The other starters also scored in double figures with Gobert getting 16 points along with 14 rebounds, Mack 14 points and Rodney Hood 13.
For Denver, Mudiay and Nikola Jokic each scored 19 and Gary Harris added 13.
Denver coach Mike Malone called it a “sobering gut-check” on how far his team has to go with his young lineup that started two rookies and three first-year players Sunday. He also felt his team played well except for the horrendous seven-minute stretch at the end of the third quarter.
“Aside from that stretch, we outplayed them for most of the game,” he said. “There’s always one part of the game we just weren’t able to overcome. Tonight it was the third quarter.”
Now it’s up to the Jazz to take care of business Monday night against Dallas.
“We’ve got a great opportunity in front of us, which will be fun,” said Hayward. “We’ve been good in back-to-backs all year and I already know the atmosphere is going to be great with the fans tomorrow night.”