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Jazz guard Earl Watson is becoming contagious.
He tweets words of inspiration. He constantly says an unproven Utah team can be anything it wants to be. He preaches 100 percent effort and respect for the game, demanding the Jazz not give in to lesser temptations.
Anything can happen in a lockout-shortened season. Bad teams can be good. Good teams can be great. And with every victory a scrappy Utah squad collects, Watson envisions the Jazz becoming something few expected.
Utah did just that Monday, heeding Watson's words and fighting back from an 11-point third-quarter deficit to punch out the Portland Trail Blazers, 93-89, at EnergySolutions Arena before a crowd of 19,328.
The Jazz shot just 38.1 percent (32 of 84) from the field and 25 percent (3 of 12) behind the 3-point line, scoring 24 points or less in three of four quarters. But what Utah (12-7) lacked in firepower, it again made up for with sheer will. The Jazz outrebounded Portland 51-37, including a decisive 18-5 advantage on offensive boards.
While role players such as Enes Kanter and Jeremy Evans bulked up Utah's attack, Watson simply inspired. He screamed. He fought. He smoothly ran up the court, then got chippy and confrontational when the moment required. He was everything Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin wants from his team. And Watson's spirit embodied all he wants Utah to become.
"A lot of it is Earl, man," guard C.J. Miles said. "You can just see it. You can look out there and see Earl holding everybody accountable."
The upstart Jazz have already produced several gutsy wins this season. Monday's comeback was among the best. Utah walked off the court tied for fourth in the Western Conference, once again proving the team is too fiery to be underestimated and too deep to be counted out.
"Tremendous, tremendous team effort tonight. One to 13, the guys did a great job just staying in there," Corbin said. "Things weren't going well for us early. But we stayed together, kept encouraging each other and forcing each other to play a little harder. … We gave ourselves a chance in the end. It's a great team win for us."
Looking lifeless during the first half and failing to adjust to the absence of injured starters Al Jefferson and Raja Bell, Utah finally clicked at the same time Portland (12-9) started settling. An 11-2 Jazz run pulled Utah within 70-69 heading into the final period. A 13-0 flurry then made it 84-79 Jazz with 4:13 to go.
Josh Howard played a part, as did Paul Millsap. The same for Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward and Devin Harris. Then Miles and Watson created sparks in the fourth, while Utah burned the Blazers in transition, dominated the boards and consistently punched Portland in the mouth.
It was exactly what Watson wanted. With the Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers days away and a grueling two-month road test on the horizon, Watson knew Monday's contest was more than just another early-season Northwest Division matchup.
That's why he tweeted before the game it was the start of an "amazing opportunity," calling for energy, resilience and "STR8 WORK." It's why he kept reminding his teammates once the ball was in play that they couldn't settle and couldn't afford to let themselves down. And it's why, after the buzzer, he used words such as separation and momentum.
Playoff teams win games like the Jazz claimed Monday. Everyone from Watson and Jefferson to Millsap and Miles have said Utah's not content with anything less than the postseason this year.
"This is why, for us, I kept emphasizing this is bigger than one game," Watson said. "Them standings are tight. … It's a chance for us to step forward. I think it was big for us to get this 'W,' shooting 38 percent, two starters out. We needed that edge back. We lost that edge last week. It was big for us."
Blazers-Jazz box score: http://bit.ly/yEafcp
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Storylines Jazz 93, Trail Blazers 89
R In short • The Jazz erase an 11-point third-quarter deficit to punch out Portland.
Key stat • Utah shot just 38.1 percent from the field but outrebounded the Blazers 51-37.