The Jazz are staying alive. Barely.
Utah’s attack dwindled to just nine active players Monday during a 91-84 home victory against San Antonio. Former starters Raja Bell and Josh Howard were already wounded. C.J. Miles — who replaced Bell in the first unit — and Earl Watson were officially shelved just before tipoff. And when little-used forward Jeremy Evans sprained his right ankle late in the third quarter, the sight of ex-Jazz great John Stockton watching inside EnergySolutions Arena suddenly became a what-if tease.
A Hall of Fame guard didn’t board Utah’s plane to Houston on Tuesday, though, and the only reinforcement in sight is a 27-year-old former D-Leaguer who spent the past three weeks helping take care of a newborn child instead of drilling 3-pointers on the court.
With the Jazz beginning a tough three-game road trip Wednesday against the Rockets and Utah 11/2 games out of eighth place in the Western Conference with just eight contests to go, a team that has proved again and again this season it can’t be counted out swears it has one more run remaining.
Some of the Jazz’s biggest assets — depth, experience, versatility — have been erased at the worst time. But everyone from Paul Millsap and Jamaal Tinsley to coach Tyrone Corbin and general manager Kevin O’Connor believes Utah’s primary attribute is still intact.
Team chemistry is a vague, hard to explain and harder to quantify trait. But the Jazz have reveled in it all season, producing a loose but highly competitive atmosphere that’s allowed young standouts to seamlessly blend in with proven veterans. Utah’s locker room is as strong as it’s been in years. And the Jazz believe if they ascend to the playoffs, their ability to persevere through late-season injuries and adversity will ultimately come down to the elusive C word.
“[Chemistry] comes into play. Guys are sticking together through the whole season, never knowing what to expect,” Howard said. “Coach is always preaching ‘you’ve got to stay ready.’ Unfortunately for us, we’re getting injured at the wrong time of the year. … But the guys we’ve got have got to come out and step it up.”
O’Connor specifically built the 2011-12 Jazz for a lockout-shortened season. After surviving the 1998-99 work stoppage, Utah’s longtime GM knew young legs, fresh bodies and selfless athletes could compete with star power. The Jazz have proved that this year, never falling more than three games below .500, despite lacking a big-name All-Star.
Utah’s depth carried it through the first 56 games of the season. Now, the Jazz have suddenly become one of the thinnest teams competing for a playoff spot.
The ability of castoffs such as DeMarre Carroll and Tinsley to co-exist with Utah’s 22-and-younger set — Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Alec Burks and Enes Kanter — has been crucial to the club’s resilience.
“We had prepared ourselves contractually that we could go out and sign some people this year that we didn’t have guaranteed contracts [for],” O’Connor said. “Just like next year: We’ll have a little more in the way of guaranteed contracts, but we’ll still be able to add pieces. And I think if you can always remain like that, [it’s important].”
Tinsley has mentored Kanter. Carroll has bonded with Favors. Off-the-court friendships between Hayward, Burks, Evans, Watson and Bell strengthened the Jazz during a brutal road test in February and March.
After surviving the worst of the lockout season and only growing closer, Millsap said there’s no reason the Jazz should fracture now. Lesser teams back down. The Warrior’s plan? Just let it fly.
“They’re your teammates, so you’ve got to have confidence in the guys,” he said. “They’ve got your back.”
Active Jazz players
PG • Devin Harris, Jamaal Tinsley, Blake Ahearn
SG • Alec Burks
SF • Gordon Hayward, DeMarre Carroll
PF • Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors
C • Al Jefferson, Enes Kanter
PF • Jeremy Evans
Combined experience • 45 seasons
• Raja Bell (left knee), Josh Howard (left knee), C.J. Miles (left calf), Earl Watson (right knee)
Combined experience • 39 seasons
Jazz at Rockets
P At Toyota Center (Houston)
Tipoff • 6 p.m., Wednesday
TV • ROOT Sports Radio • 1320 AM, 1600 AM, 98.7 FM
Records • Jazz 30-28, Rockets 32-25
Last meeting • Jazz, 104-83 (Feb. 29)
About the Jazz • Utah’s 1-1 against Houston this season. The winner of Wednesday’s game will own a playoff tiebreaker. ... The Jazz fell to the Rockets 101-85 Feb. 19 in Houston.
About the Rockets • Houston has won four consecutive games. … Point guard Kyle Lowry returned to action Sunday and scored 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting Monday during a win against Portland.