SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Returning to the NBA playoffs is starting to become a more realistic goal for the Utah Jazz as they pile up one win after another.
Al Jefferson had 23 points and eight rebounds, Gordon Hayward chipped in 15 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, and the Jazz beat the Denver Nuggets 121-102 on Friday night.
All five starters reached double figures as the Jazz (26-22) notched their sixth straight win. Paul Millsap had 14 points and C.J. Miles scored 12. Devin Harris added 13 points and nine assists for Utah.
Utah vaulted into seventh place in the Western Conference standings. The Jazz are just a half-game behind the Memphis Grizzlies, the Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Clippers for fourth place.
Alec Burks led a strong bench contribution with 15 points. Derrick Favors chipped in 12 points and seven rebounds.
It represented a strong all-around effort for the Jazz, who were coming off a dramatic road victory over the Sacramento Kings a night earlier.
``I just thought we played great defense,' Jefferson said. ``We rebounded and we got out and ran. Guys were hitting shots. We played inside-out basketball. The most important thing was the defense.'
Al Harrington scored 20 points off the bench for Denver (26-22), while Arron Afflalo added 14 points before a third-quarter ejection. Kenneth Faried added 16 points, Andre Miller chipped in 14 and Wilson Chandler had 13 for the Nuggets.
The Jazz had their way on offense, outmuscling the Nuggets around the basket. Utah had 64 points in the paint and outrebounded the Nuggets 34-29. The Jazz also shot a blistering 59 percent from the field and 47 percent from 3-point range.
``I just don't think our defensive dimension had any integrity to it,' Nuggets coach George Karl said. ``We played well offensively. I thought we were going to have a good offensive game. We just never made enough stops or gave our defense any help with some defensive possessions.'
Dominating on both ends of the court helped the Jazz break open a close game early in the third quarter. Millsap drained two consecutive baskets to touch off a 22-3 run that gave the Jazz a 91-64 lead with 2:36 left in the third. He also capped the decisive spurt with a layup.
Utah completely stifled the Nuggets defensively during their run. Denver missed eight straight shots, with Miles getting two blocks. The Nuggets melted down mentally in that stretch and lost starting shooting guard Afflalo to an ejection after he threw an elbow into Hayward's face and was called for a flagrant foul.
``It was a bad play on my part,' said Afflalo, who faces a one-game suspension for his actions. ``I just kind of got frustrated with the game a little bit and tried to battle a few possessions here and there.'
Both teams did a good job of getting to the rim early in the first quarter. Four of the first five baskets in the game were dunks. By the end of the quarter, the Jazz had scored 16 points in the paint while the Nuggets tallied 14.
They continued to trade baskets well into the second quarter. Denver appeared to finally gain the upper hand with a 10-3 run, capped by a 3-pointer from Harrington, for a 48-43 lead. The Jazz ripped off 10 straight points and took a 53-48 lead on a floater from Jefferson with 3:41 left before halftime.
It was part of a larger 20-4 run that gave the Jazz a 63-52 lead with under a minute remaining. Harris capped the run with a pair of 3-pointers that helped Utah go into the locker room shooting 62 percent through the first two quarters.
Once Utah got out in front, the Jazz did not let up.
``That's the best part about tonight - we didn't let them stick around,' Hayward said. ``We came out in the second half and just kind of took it at them.'
Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin praised his team for showing mental toughness and playing unselfishly for 48 minutes. Corbin pointed to the team's 32 assists on 48 baskets as evidence that his players were playing the right way.
``You want to attack the basket with these guys,' Corbin said. ``They want you to get into a jump shooting contest with them and that's not who we are.'
NOTES: Josh Howard underwent surgery on his left knee and will spend one week on crutches before being re-evaluated. Howard averaged 8.7 points and 3.7 rebounds for Utah before being sidelined. . Harris tied his season high with nine assists and Hayward tied his career high with three blocks.
The Associated Press News Service
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