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Jazz hang on — win down stretch

Utah finally turns back a rally by Denver

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With only one sellout in 21 home games, fans aren't exactly flocking to the Delta Center these days.

Those who do go, though, have ample reason to stay until the bitter end. Because with the way this season's Jazz play, there's no telling when an opponent might rally.

"We let teams get back in the ballgame," coach Jerry Sloan said.

Even in Utah's 106-97 victory over Denver on Monday night, for instance, the Nuggets hung tough for much longer than Jazz teams of seasons past would have ever permitted.

Denver trailed by 12 at halftime and by as many as 14 early in the third quarter, but just more than six minutes later Utah's lead stood at just 3.

"Clearly, we're a different team than we were five years ago," Jazz guard John Stockton said, beckoning back to Utah's NBA Finals glory days.

"But I also think this team has potential to get better as the season goes on," Stockton added. "Where that team was at a plateau and we just stayed on an even keel all year long, this team has to, and will, get better."

With a lineup as young as the one Sloan went with Monday, Utah — 20-17 overall, and 3-1 in a five-game homestand that ends Wednesday — can only hope that's the case.

Joining rookie center Jarron Collins and 20-year-old second-season shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson this time was 20-year-old Russian rookie Andrei Kirilenko, who struggled a bit in just his third NBA start.

Kirikenko got the call over Scott Padgett, who started Saturday vs. Memphis, and did wind up finishing Monday. Both have started in place of veteran Donyell Marshall, who missed his second straight game with a bruised right hip, and remains "day-to-day."

"We've got to try to help him understand what we're doing more often," Sloan said of Kirilenko, who still had 8 points and three blocks in 18 minutes. "I think he got off to a fairly decent start, but then he got hurt defensively. He's got to be mentally ready to get up and guard people.

"You know, you can't just rely on your ability to block shots — because for every shot that you try to block, a guy's laying it up," Sloan added. "You might get three or shots blocks in a game, but you give up four or five layups. I'd rather have it the other way — don't give up any layups, and not get any blocked shots."

So go the travails of a younger-than-usual Jazz team, one whose green side showed even against an 11-25 Denver club that played without usual starter Antonio McDyess. McDyess is out until at least next month while rehabbing from October surgery to repair a torn patella tendon in his left knee.

"It looks like we go through two possessions, then have two that we don't know what we're doing out there," Sloan said. "A lot of that has to do with some of the players that we have that are not experienced. They've got to get their thinking caps on and not keep making the same mistakes over and over again."

When the Nuggets rallied in the third, it was with Kirilenko, Collins and Stevenson all on the floor for the Jazz. But after backup point guard John Crotty came in to spell Stockton and veteran swingman Bryon Russell replaced Kirilenko, Utah restored its lead to 12.

Denver did trim the Jazz advantage back down to 5 in the first minute of the final quarter, but Utah answered with a nice down-low turnaround jumper from Greg Ostertag and a 3-pointer from fellow veteran sub John Starks.

The Jazz never led by less than 6 after that.

Still, doubt lingered.

"We can't let (teams) get momentum," Collins said. "We had a 12-point lead at halftime — and we have to build on that lead, instead of letting teams get back into it."

At least they listen well, these youngsters.

Now if only they'd consistently do more of what Sloan tells them, everyone who does show can head home earlier.

NOTES: Karl Malone's 6-of-8 free-throw shooting included the 12,000th attempt of his career, a first-quarter miss on his first shot from the line. Last Dec. 10 vs. Dallas, Malone passed Wilt Chamberlain (11,862) to become the NBA's all-time leader in free throws attempted . . . Russell played 32 minutes, including the 15,000th of his career. By comparison, Stockton has played 44,086 . . . Denver's starting lineup included four left-handed shooters — all but James Posey shot southpaw . . . The Nuggets have lost 12 straight road games . . . Head referee Monday was Dan Crawford, who worked Saturday's fight-fest between Los Angeles and Chicago that resulted in a three-game suspension for Lakers star Shaquille O'Neal . . . Marshall should hope to return Wednesday: It's Donyell Marshall bobblehead night, with a limited number of look-alike figurines to be distributed prior to the Jazz's game against Seattle.

E-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com