Memphis, Tenn. • Al Jefferson has been near-silent after the Jazz’s last two losses. He dresses slowly, speaks softly and limits his answers to a few words before quietly exiting Utah’s locker room.
Jefferson doesn’t need to talk. He knows exactly what’s happening. The Jazz’s season is becoming harder to save at the same time Utah’s running out of games.
Utah fell 103-98 to the Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday at FedEx Forum.
The Jazz have only five contests left to keep Jefferson’s vision alive.
Since training camp for the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign started, all Utah’s starting center has wanted to do is make the playoffs. His goal has been the same as second-year coach Tyrone Corbin’s. Corbin’s focus has been in line with everyone from Paul Millsap and Gordon Hayward to Jamaal Tinsley and Utah General Manager Kevin O’Connor.
Develop youth while winning games. Stay in contention. Get to the postseason. See what happens.
The Jazz (31-30) will now fight uphill without momentum while their season hangs in the balance.
Despite falling to Memphis, Utah remained in 10th place in the Western Conference. But the Jazz are two games behind Houston and Denver, which are tied for seventh. In addition, Utah’s desire for a 5-6 seed in the playoffs — which would prevent the Jazz from likely facing Oklahoma City or San Antonio in the first round — has nearly been erased.
“Of course it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating losing, regardless,” said Jefferson, who scored a co-team-high 20 points and grabbed eight rebounds.
He added: “We’re playing well; we’ve just got to finish games off. It doesn’t matter how well we play if we don’t win.”
One night after a frustrating setback during a loss to a 17-win New Orleans team, Utah was in a perfect position to immediately erase the Hornets defeat, put away the Grizzlies (35-24) and finish its final extended road trip of the season 2-1.
With starters Devin Harris, Hayward, Millsap and Jefferson playing like their season was at stake and Corbin coaching for the kill, Utah held a 78-72 lead with 11 minutes and 24 seconds to go.
Then the Jazz again froze down the stretch. Utah’s offense stagnated, while Memphis reserve guard O.J. Mayo honored New Orleans guard Eric Gordon.
Just like Gordon finished off the Jazz on Friday, Mayo destroyed Utah on Saturday. His fourth-quarter numbers were staggering: 17 points, 3 of 4 behind the 3-point line, six made free throws and 10 consecutive Grizzlies points from 10:09 to 8:08.
It was 78-73 Jazz before Mayo unloaded.
It was 82-80 Memphis after he was done.
“Coach [Lionel Hollins] diagramed some good plays for the pick-and-roll,” Mayo said. “Guys set good screens and set me up in order to make shots. It was good.”
Rudy Gay was even better at the end. He closed down the Jazz’s night, picking up six fourth-period points on the way to a game-high 26 and team-high 12 rebounds.
The Grizzlies had the outside shooting Utah has lacked all season — Memphis hit 7 of its 13 3-point attempts — and a star who could create and finish down the stretch.
The Jazz had another hard-to-swallow loss, washing away three quarters of playoff-like execution.
“That’s where we are now,” Corbin said. “Every play is intense, and every game is intense because it means a great deal to us and our livelihood, and whether we can stay in the playoff race or fall behind.”
Utah has five games left to save its season. Four are at home. Dwight Howard won’t play for Orlando; LaMarcus Aldridge is out for two games for Portland. But after constantly saying they didn’t want to have to count on other teams to lose just so they could sneak into the postseason, the Jazz know they must suddenly get hot, then hope to get lucky.
“It feels like [we’ve been in the playoffs] for the last two or three weeks,” Hayward said. “Each and every game, we’re fighting for our lives here. These last couple ones have been tough on us.”
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Storylines Late offense goes cold
R In short • The Jazz blow a fourth-quarter lead and fall 103-98 to Memphis on Saturday.
Key stat • Grizzlies reserve guard O.J. Mayo unloads for 17 points in the final period.
Key moment • Mayo gets 10 straight points after Utah led 78-73.