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Red-hot Gordon Hayward scores 21 in the third quarter to lead Jazz past Nuggets

SALT LAKE CITY — It’s a good thing Gordon Hayward was shooting fireballs into the scorching net and outscored the Denver Nuggets by himself in the third quarter of Saturday night’s game.

The Utah Jazz needed all the help they could get to hold off the Nuggets in the fourth quarter.

Thanks to Hayward’s impressive explosion and after an almost equally unimpressive meltdown, the Jazz escaped with a much-needed 105-98 win over the Nuggets at Vivint Arena.

Hayward lifted the Jazz to a 23-point lead with his monstrous third quarter, which saw him score 21 points compared to the Nuggets’ 16.

Denver roared back, pulling within five in the final two minutes, but Hayward calmly scored his only two points of the final quarter from the free-throw line and the Jazz closed out their fifth victory in six games.

Hayward credited a personal energy surge and his team’s defensive mindset for the huge quarter, which came after he’d scored nine points on 1-of-5 shooting in the ho-hum first half.

“I found some energy after halftime,” Hayward said. “I think we really started to guard. I was able to get some easy shots, some open looks and then the basket gets a little wider when you knock down a couple in a row.”

The Jazz came out of the locker room after the break with a 49-47 lead over a Denver club, which lost a 128-110 shootout to the Rockets on Friday night as Utah rested.

The Nuggets struck first in the third before Hayward got his groove on with a go-ahead-for-good 3-pointer.

The buckets just kept coming for Hayward, who wrapped up his third consecutive 30-point night before the fourth quarter started.

At one point, Hayward scored 10 consecutive points. He scored from everywhere in the quarter, too — from beyond the arc, from mid-range and around the basket. The All-Star candidate finished his shooting spree — hitting 9 of 16 field goals, 3 of 4 3-pointers and all nine free-throw attempts — with an exclamation-mark dunk with 3.6 seconds remaining in the quarter.

Quin Snyder was as impressed with Hayward’s defense — Danilo Gallinari only had 12 points on 3-of-11 shooting — as he was with his offense. And that’s been the case as Hayward has been on this tear, which includes consecutive season-high outputs, the first back-to-back-to-back 30-point games of his career and seven straight games with at least 22 points.

The Jazz coach was also impressed that Hayward bounced back after a rough first two quarters.

“That to me says a lot about a player and his maturity when you have a subpar half — for him a bad half relative to what he’s been doing and then he responds in the second half the way he did,” Snyder said.

“I just think he’s something. When you watch him on film more and more he’s playing every play. I think that’s the mindset he’s carrying over offensively. He was able to score in a variety of ways.”

As a team, the Jazz outscored the Nuggets 33-16 in that pivotal quarter.

Things, however, unraveled for the home team in the fourth quarter when Will Barton (10 of 20 points) and Jameer Nelson (10 of 13) sparked a massive comeback.

Denver hit seven of eight 3-pointers in the final quarter and shot 72.2 percent overall while making the Jazz and their fans sweat this one out until the last minute.

“They got back in the game raining threes on us,” Snyder said.

Fortunately for the Jazz, they had enough of a cushion thanks to the best third quarter in Hayward’s career.

“I don’t know what it was. That third quarter pretty much killed us,” Barton said. “We let Hayward get going. We were lackadaisical. We couldn’t score really, and it came back to bite us in the butt.”

Hayward, who hit 9 of 18 shots and all 11 free throws, smiled when asked if it felt like he was playing a video game in that third quarter. Hayward, of course, is well known for his video-game prowess when he’s not playing hoops.

“I don’t play NBA2K, so I couldn’t tell you that,” he said, cracking a grin. “The basket opens up, for sure, especially when you’re getting stops and the crowd’s behind you. The shots just seem to come a little easier.”

It helped that they played defense, too, which was something that didn't happen in Thursday's disappointing 111-110 loss to Miami.

"We played with some bounce. We played with some swagger," Hayward said. "We guarded. We were able to get some easy buckets in transition and we got the win."

JAZZ NOTES: Utah again played without George Hill (toe), Derrick Favors (knee) and Alec Burks (ankle). … The Jazz travel to Los Angeles on Sunday for Monday's late matchup against the Lakers. … Shooting guard Rodney Hood returned from his strained hamstring to score 15 points but missed 10 of 14 shots.