Whether it was a conclusive mathematical fact written out in the standings, or not, everybody knew the Jazz had to win Saturday night to hold onto their playoff hopes. Call it symbolically mandatory, if there is such a thing. Foremost among the clued in were the Jazz themselves.
Tyrone Corbin talked about that at length beforehand.
“Just a few games left,” he said. “We’ve got to win.”
And so, as has been the case in the Jazz’s past two games, home and away, a playoff game before the playoffs begin unfolded against Team X — this time, the Orlando Magic, this time, at EnergySolutions Arena.
And, this time, the Jazz won, just like they did in that triple-overtime thriller against Dallas and in the laugher at Portland.
Final numbers on the board: 117-107 — once again, in overtime.
“It’s amazing,” DeMarre Carroll said afterward. “It’s a blessing. We just keep fighting. It’s all you can do when your back is to the wall. Keep punching.”
A couple of hours before the opening tip, two other Western Conference rivals, the ones in the thick of the fight with the Jazz for postseason survival, the Nuggets and Suns, went at it in Phoenix. Denver won, clinching its playoff spot. The Suns sit now at 33-31, with two games remaining. Houston also won, and is 33-31.
But the Jazz are 34-30, with Phoenix, which owns the tiebreaker between the two, up next.
Regardless of how it plays out, none of these teams are going to win an NBA title. They’re scrapping for the bottom seed in the West, possibly for the sweet prize of facing the Spurs or Thunder in the playoffs’ first round. Essentially, they’re beating one another over the head for the chance to get eliminated in short order.
But, as Kevin O’Connor underscored at his team’s practice on Friday, the goal all along for the Jazz this season was double-barreled: develop a young core and establish — re-establish — what he called their “winning culture.”
By his estimation, in a year of transition, following a year of crash and burn, qualifying for the postseason would do exactly that last thing. And given what the Jazz had to work with, he’s right.
“You want players put in a position where winning is important,” he said.
That’s precisely the position the Jazz were in Saturday night.
They fell back early, trailing 36-23 at the end of the first quarter. For some strange reason, intensity didn’t initially appear to be the Jazz’s directive of the day. The Magic, playing without Dwight Howard, weren’t a defensive force, either. But both teams got around to playing hard, punching hard.
The Jazz slowly picked up their energy and efficiency, cutting a 41-27 Orlando lead down to 43-39, and then tied it at 55 at the half.
The Magic jumped back out to a big lead in the third, but, again, the Jazz fought to within two points heading into the fourth.
Playoff atmosphere kicked in from there. Urgency kicked in.
Good stuff, all around, although it didn’t always flow in Utah’s favor and it wasn’t much for looks. Playoff basketball, official or otherwise, rarely is.
In the closing minutes of regulation, the Jazz had multiple chances to take and keep a lead. A Paul Millsap push-off/offensive board/layup, which tied the game at 101 with 30 seconds left, was wiped off the board after a referee review. But Al Jefferson’s soft shot did tie it, a few moments later.
The Magic had a final possession … but Devin Harris blocked a Jameer Nelson last-second attempt, sending another Jazz game into overtime.
That’s when Utah played its best ball of the night, outscoring Orlando 16-6 in the extra period and earning a great shot at playing beyond next week.
When winning is even harder, and even more important.
GORDON MONSON hosts the “Gordon Monson Show” weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.