Wolves’ defense struggles to stop sharp-shooting Jazz

SALT LAKE CITY — Moments like Friday night are what Gordon Hayward envisioned last summer when he remade his body and pushed his talents to an All-Star level. And when outsiders question if Hayward can be a true No. 1 option on a contending team, the Utah Jazz front office can point to outings like that.

Hayward scored a career-high 39 points and the Jazz rallied from an 11-point deficit to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 120-113.

More Wolves draft coverage

The Jazz have won a season-best eight consecutive games at home and clinched the Northwest Division title for the first time since 2007-08.

“It was fun out there tonight,” Hayward said. “In those situations where they really lock in and the game gets down to the wire there, definitely, it’s those long days in the summer, two-a-days in the summer. The preparation that you do is what helps you be successful now.

“Definitely, happy that I put in the work.”

Hayward and Joe Johnson powered a 40-point third quarter in which the Jazz came from behind and took the lead for good with a 16-7 run. Hayward scored 30 in his second consecutive game and Johnson added 22 off the bench. The pair combined to shoot 8 for 10 from behind the arc.

Every time Minnesota got close in the final minutes, Hayward hit a jumper to extend the lead.

The defensive-minded Jazz shot 60 percent from the field as they were forced to outscore the Timberwolves with the defense lacking.

“We’ve talked about getting stops and getting stops,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “We weren’t able to get stops. So, we had to be able to score on the other end.

“I just felt our team really wanted the win. We just took a little different path to get there. … Half-empty or half-full. To me, this is half-full with what we were able to do on the offensive end. … It wasn’t just that we scored, it was the way we executed at the end of the game, and Gordon in particular.”

Karl-Anthony Towns led the Timberwolves with 32 points and 13 rebounds, and Ricky Rubio added 26 points and 12 assists. Andrew Wiggins finished with 25.

The Timberwolves led 60-55 at halftime and were ahead by 11 midway through the second quarter. An 11-4 run punctuated by Kris Dunn’s 3-pointer pushed the lead to double digits, but the Jazz answered with a 13-2 stretch to tie things at 51 apiece.

“We showed toughness down the stretch,” Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. “A play here or there is the difference in winning that game. I think we’re growing in terms of toughness but, defensively, we have to make a lot of improvements.”

TIP-INS

Timberwolves: Minnesota shot 51.4 percent in the first half, but allowed the Jazz to shoot 56.8 percent. … The 113 points were the most scored against the Jazz this season.

Jazz: George Hill (groin) and Raul Neto (groin) did not play. … Derrick Favors (knee) returned after missing the last 14 games and scored 13 in 15 minutes. … Joe Ingles had a career-high eight assists.

PLAYOFF IMPLICATIONS

The Jazz increased their lead over the Clippers for the No. 4 Western Conference playoff seed to one game. The

BIG KAT

Towns, the reigning Rookie of the Year, was not an All-Star in his sophomore season, but Thibodeau said his star center has improved in every way this season. His points, rebounds, assists and 3-point shooting have all increased.

“He’s scoring in so many different ways,” Thibodeau said. “Back to the basket, catch-and-shoot, pick-and-roll. In transition, he can handle the ball. Has great touch. Can shoot the 3. Probably hasn’t gotten to the line as much as we would like, but I think that will come in time.

“The rebounding has been off the chart all year and the defense is something he continues to work on.”

QUOTABLE

“We’re playing these games as if we’re playing for our lives,” Towns said. “We’re doing a great job of fighting. It’s about competing and about getting better.”

UP NEXT

Timberwolves: Minnesota travels to face the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday.

Jazz: Utah travels to face a Portland Trail Blazers team fighting for the last Western Conference playoff spot on Saturday.