The Utah Jazz looked like a team on the verge of collapse 10 days ago.
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Now they’ve won a season-best five straight to move a half-game ahead of the idle Los Angeles Lakers for the eighth Western Conference playoff spot.
”Look at the Baltimore Ravens,” Jazz big man Al Jefferson said of the Super Bowl champs. ”They started to play well right at the right time. We’re clicking at the right time. We have seven more games to go.”
Jefferson scored 24 points, Mo Williams hit six 3-pointers and the Jazz (39-36) beat the Portland Trail Blazers 112-102 Monday night.
”We’re a team that’s playing like we want to be in the playoffs,” Jefferson added.
It helps that Utah is knocking down 3s, opening things up inside even more for its big men.
Randy Foye did the damage in Saturday’s win over Brooklyn, going 8 of 9 from beyond the arc.
On Monday, it was Williams’ turn.
He made a season-high 6 of 7 3-pointers and finished with 20 points as six Jazz players scored in double figures.
In the last two games, the Jazz have made 19 3-pointers.
Williams said he is just being more aggressive.
”I’m just playing,” said Williams, who also had nine assists in pushing the up-tempo game. ”I’m not even thinking about it. Let the plays happen. Let my natural ability take over.”
The Blazers were within 79-72 after Eric Maynor’s 3-pointer with 2:02 left in the third before Williams hit his fifth and sixth 3-pointers to give Utah an 87-74 lead going into the fourth. The Jazz opened the fourth on a 10-4 run, and never looked back.
Utah led by as many as 19 points, outscoring Portland 52-28 in the paint.
Jefferson, fresh off Western Conference player of the week honors, did much of the damage.
He made 12 of 21 shots, had 10 rebounds, two steals, two blocks and two assists. Paul Millsap added 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting, and Derrick Favors had 18 points and seven rebounds for the Jazz.
The win was Utah’s second in four days over the Blazers (33-41), losers of five consecutive and still without leading scorer LaMarcus Aldridge because of a sprained ankle.
Wesley Matthews led Portland with 23 points. Rookie standout Damian Lillard added 17 points, including three 3-pointers to break the NBA’s single-season rookie record (166). He finished 7 of 16 overall and 3 of 7 beyond the arc, with five assists and five rebounds.
”It’s an honor to be able to do that,” Lillard said. ”But I wish I would have done it in a win. It’s bittersweet.”
Lillard, the No. 6 overall pick in the June draft, had averaged 24.3 points in three previous games against Utah this season. And he was enjoying a homecoming of sorts, having played just 40 miles north of Salt Lake City at Weber State.
But Williams made sure the rookie couldn’t match him.
In Portland on Friday, Williams scored 26 of his 28 points in the second half. He was 3 of 3 from beyond the arc in the third Monday as Utah pulled away.
”You can tell that Mo is getting back in his groove, playing the way he wants to play,” Jefferson said of Williams, who missed extensive time following thumb surgery. ”He’s scoring, getting people involved and playing good defense and everybody is jumping on his bandwagon. It starts with him.”
The Blazers trailed by as many as 14 points in the first quarter. But another 3-pointer by Lillard and three-point play by Meyers Leonard pulled Portland within 29-25 with 10:35 left in the second.
Victor Claver and Matthews then got hot. Matthews was 4 of 5 in the second quarter and Claver made a pair of 3s, the second getting the Blazers within 47-46 with 1:57 left in the half.
Williams kept the Jazz ahead with his third 3 of the night and Jefferson closed out the half with a nice spin move around J.J. Hickson for an easy layup and a 56-49 Jazz advantage.
The win was Utah’s fifth wire-to-wire victory this season, as the Jazz raced out to a 7-0 lead. They led 27-13 with 2:52 left in the first quarter after another dunk by Jefferson. Utah forced six Blazers turnovers in the first quarter, 10 in the half and 16 overall.
Now the Jazz can watch the two teams directly behind them in the standings, the Lakers (38-36) and Mavs (36-37), square off Tuesday night.
Utah then will get a huge test at home Wednesday against the Denver Nuggets.
”It will be good to catch them when we’re playing really well, playing with a lot of confidence,” Williams said. ”We’ve just got to go out the way we went out the last five games.”
NOTES: Jefferson on Monday was named Western Conference player of the week for the final week in March. In four wins, he averaged 19.8 points, 8.3 rebounds and shot 54 percent from the field. … The Jazz were eying Lillard long before he started moving up the draft charts last year. ”You have to admire the guy coming from the area here and having the success he’s had after staying at (Weber State) for four years,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. ”I’m a fan from afar.” … Blazers coach Terry Stotts on sitting players late in the season: ”If a player wants to play and he can play, then he should play.” … Lillard’s college team is playing East Carolina for the CIT title Tuesday night in Ogden and his former coach, Randy Rahe, was at Monday’s game. … Unlike former Jazz point guard Deron Williams on Saturday or former Brigham Young star Jimmer Fredette, Lillard received a warm welcome at the arena on Monday.