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Utah Jazz look forward to New Year after closing 2017 on high note

SALT LAKE CITY — The news of LeBron James’ 33rd birthday celebration in Utah is what dominated national headlines everywhere entering Saturday’s Utah Jazz versus Cleveland Cavaliers game.

Utah was clearly a long shot to win the game, having lost three straight entering the much-publicized matchup.

But after 48 intense minutes of action, confetti rained from the ceiling at Vivint Arena in celebration of the home team as Utah pulled off the upset with a 104-101 victory.

Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell spoiled James’ big day with 29 points, six assists, four rebounds and three steals, with a barrage of clutch plays and baskets down the stretch.

James still managed to log 29 points, eight rebounds and six assists but made six turnovers, even receiving a technical foul at 8:13 in the third in frustration from the pesky defense of Jazz forward Thabo Sefolosha.

After enduring the toughest NBA schedule for the month of December, going 5-10 against the league’s strongest teams, the Jazz needed a victory badly. Eleven of their December opponents are legitimate playoff contenders.

“It’s great,” Sefolosha said. “Going into the month of January with a win against a very good team I think gives us a lot of confidence, and we have to build on that.”

Prior to the victory against Cleveland, Utah had dropped 10 of its previous 12 games with a bevy of injuries, including All-NBA center Rudy Gobert.

The team announced Saturday that Gobert will miss at least two more weeks with a left PCL sprain and bone bruise. In Gobert’s absence, the defense is still finding its way as the offense has relied heavily on Mitchell.

Ricky Rubio was honored with the November NBA Cares Community Assist Award ahead of the Jazz-Cavaliers game and stepped up in a big way for the Jazz with a terrific performance. Rubio displayed aggressiveness and nearly notched a triple-double with 16 points, 10 rebounds and eight dimes to help the Jazz improve to 16-21 in the final game of 2017.

“We had a tough schedule, but we can’t complain,” Rubio said. “It’s the NBA and we learned a lot. We had some good stretches in games, but we didn’t complete a 48-minute game like we did tonight.”

Even after falling behind by as many as 14 in the first quarter against Cleveland, Utah continued to fight. The Jazz did damage in the paint, outscoring the Cavaliers 52-38. Mitchell’s driving layup after blowing past JR Smith with 35 seconds remaining was the icing on the cake.

“He’s a player. Kid’s got a lot of game,” James said of Mitchell. “They’ve been riding that wave all season, since they realized what they’ve actually got. He’s not afraid of the moment, he just goes out there and plays ball.

“They put him in situations where he can succeed and he’s just trying to take advantage of that.”

Mitchell flourished in the month of December, with seven games of 25 or more points. He was the first rookie to record that point production in December since former San Antonio Spurs star David Robinson in 1989, who finished with eight. He currently leads all rookies in scoring with 18.2 points per game, and looks to continue that pace in 2018.

There’s no stopping for him or the Jazz with the toughest stretch in their rearview mirror.

“We fought hard when we played in Cleveland, so we came back home and we were on a little bit of a losing streak,” Mitchell said. “We don’t like losing as a team and we couldn’t lose the last game in 2017, so we had to go out there and fight.”