The Utah Jazz have been struggling with slow starts for most of the season, but that hasn’t kept them from their usual spot atop the Northwest Division.
All they needed to defeat the Atlanta Hawks was a strong finish.
One season after the Hawks pulled off their first sweep of the Jazz in 17 years, Utah can return the favor with a home win Wednesday night.
The Jazz (24-11) would take any kind of victory, but they’d prefer to make things easier on themselves than they did in the first two games of this three-game homestand.
They trailed 14-6 early against Memphis on Saturday before rallying for a 98-92 win, then faced a deficit after the first quarter of Monday’s 102-97 victory over Detroit.
The Jazz have trailed at halftime in 21 of 35 games, but they’ve often responded with good finishes, outscoring opponents by an average of 3.5 points in the fourth quarter - the NBA’s best margin. That’s one reason they maintain a slim lead on Oklahoma City in the division they’ve won three of the last four seasons.
“The good thing is we’re a closing team,” Bell said.
“We’ve been in tight games this year and kept plugging away. You could see us really close ranks there in the fourth quarter and start executing our stuff.”
That’s exactly how the Jazz won in Atlanta on Nov. 12. After getting outscored in each of the first three quarters, Utah finished on a 27-12 run to claim a 90-86 victory.
That ended the team’s three-game losing streak against the Hawks, which included Atlanta’s first win in Salt Lake City since 1993. The Hawks snapped a 15-game skid at Utah with a 105-100 victory Feb. 22, taking advantage of injuries that sidelined Deron Williams(notes) and Andrei Kirilenko(notes).
Paul Millsap(notes) may miss this contest. The power forward, second on the Jazz with averages of 17.5 points and 8.0 rebounds, is a game-time decision after missing Tuesday’s practice with a bruised hip.
The presence of Williams should help. The point guard is the league’s only player averaging more than 20.0 points and 9.0 assists, and he had 24 and 11, respectively, against the Hawks in November.
Atlanta (23-14) is hoping to close its four-game road trip with a third consecutive victory. After Sunday’s 107-98 win over the Los Angeles Clippers, the Hawks appeared to be cruising Tuesday at Sacramento, with a 22-point fourth-quarter lead and some of their key players on the bench.
They nearly squandered that advantage, but held on for a 108-102 victory.
“I wanted to give our starters a rest since we play at Utah (on Wednesday),” coach Larry Drew said. “But we stopped running, stopped defending, and stopped executing. We let them come back at the end. I wasn’t even going to play Joe (Johnson) in the fourth quarter.”
Johnson returned and made all four of his free-throw attempts in the final minute, part of the Hawks’ 10-for-10 performance from the line at the end.
Jamal Crawford(notes) also made four, finishing with a season-high 31 points. Johnson added 29, shooting 12 of 18 from the field - his best performance since he returned from an elbow injury last month.
“The elbow is getting better, but it’s not quite where I want it to be yet,” said Johnson, who had 28 points in last season’s win at Utah.