SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Rookie Gordon Hayward scored a career-high 34 points and hit five 3-pointers to give the Utah Jazz a 107-103 victory over playoff-bound Denver in the season finale for both teams Wednesday night.
The game meant little to the Nuggets, who already had locked up the Western Conference’s No. 5 seed and rested many of their players. They probably wish they had sat starting guard Ty Lawson as well. He had to be helped off the court after spraining his left ankle early in the second quarter and did not return.
The Jazz also had nothing to play for, other than trying to win back fans for next season and finishing with a winning mark at home. They accomplished both, with rookie coach Ty Corbin opting for a young lineup with only eight players active.
Wilson Chandler led the Nuggets with 27 points.
The Jazz led 61-58 at halftime, and made it 74-64 on Paul Millsap’s 3-pointer with 6:48 left in the third quarter. Denver fought back to tie it at 93 with 6:15 left to play on Chandler’s baseline jumper, and took a 97-95 lead on two free throws by Chris Andersen.
Hayward’s fifth 3-pointer gave Utah a 99-97 lead but J;R. Smith countered with a 3 of his own to put Denver ahead 100-99 with 3:19 left. Al Harrington’s 3-pointer bumped Denver’s lead to 103-99.
Devin Harris scored for Utah and Hayward’s two free throws tied it at 103 with 1:08 remaining.
Al Jefferson’s 4-foot turnaround jumper with 35 seconds left was the winner.
The teams bore little resemblance to the ones who opened the season against each other Oct. 27 in Denver. The Nuggets shipped stars Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups east to New York in one blockbuster trade. And the Jazz followed suit a day later by trading away All-Star point guard Deron Williams to the New Jersey Nets.
Since those late-February moves, the teams have gone in opposite directions. The Nuggets went 18-7 and clinched the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference playoffs, and the Jazz continued tumbling — becoming the first team in NBA history to start 15-5 and 27-13 and not qualify for postseason.
Nuggets coach George Karl wasn’t surprised the Jazz struggled after seeing Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan suddenly retire, followed by the Williams trade 13 days later.
“That’s like being punched twice, by Muhammad Ali, then the next night getting punched by Joe Frazier,” Karl said.
The Nuggets, meanwhile, quickly meshed with new players Chandler, Ray Felton, Danilo Gallinari and Kosta Koufos.
“There’s a lot of statistical reasons but I think the one thing that we have done almost every game is play with a tremendous intensity and enthusiasm that doesn’t happen in March and April in an NBA season very often,” Karl said “And fundamentally we don’t beat ourselves.”
They’ve also been relatively healthy, something the Jazz weren’t as they were forced to start 20 different lineups because of injury.
“They had all their guys and got off to such a great run and had great confidence,” Corbin said. “And they trusted each other really fast. You wish them well, but you do look back and say, ‘What if we had been healthy, if we would have jelled a little bit sooner with all the guys on the floor? What could we have done? There’s always ‘What if?’ We’ve had some successes and some failures. Hopefully we learned from both.”
The Nuggets will face either Dallas or Oklahoma City in the first round.
NOTES: Nuggets C Nene finish the season tops in NBA field goal percentage at 61.5. … Nuggets coach Karl called comments he made about preferring to play Dallas over Oklahoma City in the playoffs greatly exaggerated. “Like I really want to play Dallas,” Karl said. “I’d like to play Minnesota or Golden State.” … F Andrei Kirilenko autographed Jazz T-shirts and basketballs before the game in street clothes, unable to play what could be his final game in Utah. He becomes a free agent after the season and would like to return but will test the market. “I never really been in this kind of situation before,” Kirilenko said. “We will decide as family. … This (returning) is the main option.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)