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Jazz show confidence in win over West-leading Thunder

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(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Earl Watson of the Utah Jazz reacts to missing a shot during the pre-game warm-ups as the get ready to host Oklahoma City 3/20/12, in Salt Lake City, Utah at the Energy Solutions Arena.

By Brian T. Smith

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Mar 20 2012 11:21PM
Updated Mar 21, 2012 10:09AM

Confidence. Pride. Swagger.

It was all there for the Jazz. In the face of Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant. In spite of the Thunder.

Everything Utah has worked for since training camp began for the 2011-12 season came to life. And when Utah saw the light Tuesday, it didn’t just briefly awaken, then give the game away. The Jazz leapt to the top, stayed there, and slammed a 97-90 win down the Thunder’s throat.

Paul Millsap’s team-high 20 points on 10-of-16 shooting tells part of the story for Utah (24-22), which won its fourth consecutive contest and jumped into sole possession of ninth place in the Western Conference, a half game behind eighth-place Houston.

Six Jazz players hitting double-figures in scoring — including 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting by third-string point guard Jamaal Tinsley — was part of the picture.

There was Utah’s C.J. Miles and Gordon Hayward defensively pairing up, holding Durant to 6-of-22 shooting. The Jazz outscoring the Thunder 50-20 in the paint while forcing 20 OKC turnovers. Thirteen points in just 2 minutes and 47 seconds from Devin Harris, including three 3-pointers, which pushed Utah to a 14-point lead early during the third quarter.

But as good as the action looked, it left out one word: domination. The Jazz dominated the Thunder (34-12) at EnergySolutions Arena before a crowd of 18,138.

Despite leading the West and being the third-best team record-wise in the NBA, OKC was never in control. Durant was silenced. Thunder guard Russel Westbrook (game-high 23 points) was quieted after 13 in the first quarter. And the Jazz took their thrilling win Sunday at the Los Angeles Lakers and leapt right over it.

Utah owned the Thunder for 48 minutes, unleashing its best overall performance of the season. In turn, a team that’s knocked off six of the top eight teams in the West with 20 contests to go in a lockout-shortened season is not just back in serious playoff contention. The Jazz have long believed they can beat the league’s elite when they play the right way. Tuesday, Utah proved it could be dangerous for anyone it faces in the postseason.

"These guys have worked hard all year and they’re getting a better understanding of where we’re trying to get to," Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. "Everybody’s believing and trusting in each other and they’re trusting in what we’re trying to get done. And they’re holding each other accountable. … It’s all positive stuff to make us better."

Utah hasn’t been this good all season. After starting 12-7, the Jazz fell backward and went into the All-Star break in a nose dive. But despite recently playing without starters Al Jefferson and Raja Bell, and possibly losing starting small forward Josh Howard (left knee surgery) Tuesday for the rest of the season, Utah did everything right against the Thunder.

It was the brilliance the Jazz showed in previous wins against teams such as Philadelphia, Memphis, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Lakers. But it was sharper and brighter. Forty-eight minutes of true playoff-caliber basketball. Forty-eight minutes of Jazz ball at its best.

"No one man bigger than the team, and that’s the way we’re playing right now," Jefferson said. "We keep doing that, man, and I think we’re going to be tough. … We do that, [we’ll] be great."

Briefly

Bell (strained left adductor) said he hopes to return Thursday against Sacramento. … Jazz backup point guard Earl Watson (sprained left ankle) missed his fourth consecutive game. He’ll likely return Friday against Denver so he can allow his injury to further heal and avoid an away-home back-to-back. … Utah General Manager Kevin O’Connor declined comment when asked about Golden State co-owner Joe Lacob’s statement Tuesday the Warriors were negotiating to get back their 2012 first-round draft pick, which is top-seven protected. Utah owns the rights to the selection, which it acquired from New Jersey in the Deron Williams trade.

bsmith@sltrib.comTwitter: @tribjazz

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