At last, this was the moment when the Jazz could rid themselves of last season’s nightmare.
That’s exactly what they did Tuesday night at EnergySolutions Arena, with Paul Millsap’s 26 points and 15 rebounds powering them to a 100-88 victory over Phoenix and into the NBA playoffs.
The Jazz got there in the style that has defined them this season, amid displays of toughness, poise and drama.
Having returned from the locker room, where he received stitches over his left eye, Al Jefferson posted eight points and eight rebounds in the decisive fourth quarter.
The Jazz (35-30) steadied themselves after losing a 10-point lead, surging ahead to stay during a frenzied final period. A team that has experienced so many close, agonizing games fell behind in the fourth quarter, then became relentless.
“I’m proud of the way the guys responded,” said guard Devin Harris.
Afterward, owner Gail Miller, general manager Kevin O’Connor and coach Tyrone Corbin addressed the players in the locker room, driving home the significance of what they’ve done.
“Nobody gave us a chance in the beginning,” Corbin said. “We’re here now.”
This team clearly has come a long way since late February — and even further since February 2011, when coach Jerry Sloan resigned, All-Star guard Deron Williams was traded and the Jazz historically collapsed from their seemingly secure playoff status.
The Jazz’s outlook is much brighter now, regardless of how long they last in the postseason. Just making the playoffs is a genuine achievement. This ranks as the franchise’s most meaningful April advancement since the first playoff season of 1983-84.
The team’s 20-12 record in the last two months reflects some masterful work from Corbin, mixed with the leadership of the Jazz’s veteran players and the continued growth of their four rotation regulars between ages 19 and 22.
Anticipating the team’s return to the playoffs, Corbin had said Monday, “That’s who we are. That’s what we want to do. It would be a great accomplishment for us, after all the turmoil last year. … The guys really stayed together and worked, and to get back in the playoffs this soon would be great for us.”
Of course, by making the playoffs, the Jazz will lose their 2012 first-round draft choice to Minnesota via a conditional trade agreement. Missing the playoffs would have meant keeping the pick.
Judging by the atmosphere in the arena Tuesday, you never would have known any sort of consolation prize — or a preferable outcome, according to some fans — was available to the Jazz. The crowd was immersed in this game on every possession from start to finish.
Never in franchise history had the Jazz ever faced circumstances quite like this in the final week of the regular season: a clear-cut, win-and-they’re-in game for a playoff bid. We’ll never know how things would have played out in a standard 82-game schedule, but having a chance to clinch a berth in the second-to-last game of this shortened season was really all the Jazz could want.
“It’s a great opportunity for us, and it’s time for us to perform,” Corbin said before the game.
The Jazz threatened to run away in the third quarter, building that 10-point lead, but nothing about this season has been easy for them. The Suns cut the lead to one before the Jazz responded, taking a 73-68 lead into the fourth quarter.
Phoenix quickly surged ahead, but the Jazz’s falling behind just made their and strong finish all the more impressive.
That’s what they’ve done throughout this season, and they’re promising there’s more to come. “We don’t want to be satisfied,” Harris said.