SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz always knew there would be nights things weren't so easy. When the open threes wouldn't fall and the transition points wouldn't come in bunches.
Utah had won eight straight games without frankly a lot of resistance — sure, there were some tough moments here and one close game there, but for the most part, it's been pretty smooth sailing.
The team has been shooting lights out, the defense has been putting up league-best numbers and Donovan Mitchell has been scoring with ease. What happens when things don't go so easily?
That's what the Jazz found out Tuesday. Turns out, they can win the hard ones, too.
The Jazz overcame a 13-point halftime deficit and a career-half by Austin Rivers to beat the New York Knicks 108-94 Tuesday at Vivint Arena.
"We talk about winning ugly, and tonight, ugly was really pretty," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said.
In the first half, things were pretty ugly — at least Utah's shooting percentage was. The Jazz were just 5-of-22 from the 3-point line and the potent backcourt of Mitchell and Mike Conley were a combined 1-for-14. It wasn't that the Jazz were playing terribly, it was just that the shots that had been going down suddenly weren't.
The Knicks are the NBA's best 3-point defensive team, allowing teams to shoot 31.7% shooting. But New York has also been lucky. Some have even labeled it "Jedi defense" — you wave a hand and hope teams miss. There's nothing special about what the Knicks do — in fact, they are more known to want to protect the rim than the perimeter — but teams have just missed open looks.
The Jazz joined in on the fun on Tuesday, especially in the first half when Utah missed open look after open look.
"We had a lot of stretches that it was hard to differentiate how well we were playing because we didn't make shots," Snyder said.
The opposite thing was happening on the other end. Rivers was 10-for-10 from the field, including 5-of-5 from three, on his way to a 25-point first half. Even if an opposing team decided to not contest his shots, it's unlikely he'd be able to pull that off again. So the Jazz entered halftime feeling a bit unlucky. And that's when they received a message from their coach.
"If we want to be a great team, if we want to be a championship-contending team, these are the types of games you have to win no matter how good the other teams' playing," Snyder said, according to Conley.
Those were the words that were echoing in Conley's mind as he pulled up for a three on Utah's first possession of the second half. And this time, the three went in. And thus began a dominant 24 minutes. Utah outscored the Knicks by 27 points over the final two quarters, including an 18-3 run to open the fourth quarter to pull away and claim their ninth straight win.
Royce O'Neal had a career-high 20 points and six rebounds, Rudy Gobert had 18 points and 19 rebounds, and Mike Conley scored 17 of his 19 points in the second half as the Jazz kept their NBA-best winning streak alive.
Mitchell, meanwhile, finished with just 9 points on 3-of-15 shooting. With Utah's top offensive weapon struggling that much, Utah was still able to not only find a way to win but find a way to win comfortably. That's just more evidence of how good this team is.
"For us to have trouble making shots and still take 48 threes to me is more significant than anything because there was a stretch where we didn't see it go in for a long period of time, and when that happens there's a tendency to stop shooting," Snyder said.
Even with the slow-shooting start, the Jazz kept to their guns. They didn't change the way they played and eventually enough shots started going down. Utah was 38% from three in the second half, still below its season average, but good enough to get by the Knicks, especially with how Utah defended late.
The Jazz don't want to live or die by the three. Shooting nights like Tuesday are going to come, no matter how well the Jazz move the ball. Mitchell wasn't going to shoot over 50% from three for a season — neither is anyone else. Coming back down to earth was expected, and the Jazz won anyway.
"This game is about our defense," Snyder said. "To give up a 13-point fourth quarter, to get stronger as the game went along, and to continue to attack offensively; that's one of the things we didn't do and we played them last time."
The last time the two teams played was the last time the Jazz lost. Now, the Knicks are just another tally on a growing winning streak.