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Gordon Hayward spent the whole game attacking. He scored eight points during the first quarter, 12 by halftime and was the Jazz's most aggressive and dynamic player during a night that saw normal stars Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap struggle.
But when Hayward walked off the court Saturday at EnergySolutions Arena, the only look on his face was relief.
Utah had outlasted and overcome Sacramento. Barely.
Led by Hayward's team-high 21 points, five rebounds and four assists, the Jazz downed the Kings, 96-93.
But Utah (11-7) watched a 12-point lead with 6 minutes, 8 seconds to go suddenly turn into a slim one-point advantage with 30.5 left on the clock.
After recently failing to finish games and suffering tough, late losses to Dallas and Toronto, Hayward's first thought was Raptors Redux. But the Jazz held on, Kings rookie guard Jimmer Fredette air-balled a potential game-winning 3-pointer, and Utah reclaimed a little momentum heading into an important week that will see the team host Portland, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Lakers during a six-day stretch.
"We let them hang around, hang around. It was almost like Toronto all over again," Hayward said. "We've got to be able to close teams out. They made some plays, but we have to definitely do better down the stretch execution-wise."
Sacramento (6-14) guard Tyreke Evans mimicked the Mavericks' Rodrigue Beaubois, who burned Utah during a road loss Friday. Evans consistently sliced through the lane, alternating contorted layups with power dunks. He finished with game highs in points (31) and assists (nine), and pulled the Kings within 94-93 after converting a close-range basket.
"We played how we wanted to play. We pushed the ball when we had a chance," Evans said. "We got a little sloppy with the ball a little bit. We just didn't come up with a win."
Early, strong production by C.J. Miles and Hayward gave Utah enough breathing room to last. Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said Hayward walked onto the court wanting to attack the basket and make a statement. His message was delivered.
While Hayward ripped and fired, Miles bolted off the bench to score 18 points in 18 quick minutes. He finished with 20 on 8-of-13 shooting, acknowledging he's finally come to terms with the fact that making the best of limited time is the best thing he can do for his team and his career.
"Eighteen minutes: be aggressive. I know it's going to be 18. At the most, it's going to be 24. I know that now," Miles said. "So it's, like, just go out there and play. I don't even worry about it anymore. … I've been able to do well with those 18s the last couple weeks."
Fredette fared OK, and his production was captured by the reception he received from a sellout crowd of 19,911. When the former Brigham Young University star guard was introduced, he was widely cheered and somewhat booed. Every time he touched the ball during the first quarter, more boos rained down. But the most celebrated Cougar in school history responded by being Jimmer, drilling 3 of 5 3s and finishing with 14 points. Soon, he was loved again, with ESA sounding more like the Marriott Center than Utah's home court.
"It was funny, because normally I'm sure they're not used to hearing cheers when someone from the other team scores," Fredette said. "It was great to hear. Obviously great support here and I really appreciate all the fans who came out to support myself. … It was a great atmosphere."
Fredette had a heaven-sent chance to knock out the Jazz with 5.9 to go. With the Kings down by two, Sacramento swung the ball around the perimeter and Fredette ended up with a wide-open long-range look. His shot sailed through the air, drifted downward and never touched the net. Or the iron. Fredette fired an air ball. And Hayward was soon sighing in relief.
"I caught it, shot it … but the ball didn't go in and that's what happens," Fredette said.
Jazz guard Raja Bell (strained right adductor) left the game with 1:54 left in the second quarter and did not return. Miles started the second half in his place. Bell has experienced adductor strains before and the injury normally forces him to miss three to four games. Once he felt a "pinch" Saturday, he took himself out. He plans to re-evaluate the injury Sunday. "I didn't pull it bad … but I felt like it was at a point where it was better to be cautious with it." … Utah forward Jeremy Evans has yet to be contacted by the NBA about appearing in the 2012 All-Star dunk contest.
Storylines Jazz win nail-biter
R In short • Utah wins for the 2nd time in five games.
Key stat • Utah's Gordon Hayward and C.J. Miles combine for 41 points, offsetting off nights by Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap.
Key moment • Kings guard Jimmer Fredette air-balls a potential game-winning 3-pointer.