Caught in that moment of indecision between taking another dribble toward the basket and beating the buzzer, Jazz center Al Jefferson tossed up a running, floating shot that bounced off the rim as the first quarter ended Monday night.
Jefferson just shook his head and smiled as he walked toward the bench, knowing he’d missed an opportunity for a spectacular finish — and that more scoring chances were ahead for him.
These are good times for Jefferson and the Jazz. After a 112-102 victory over Portland at EnergySolutions Arena, the Jazz (39-36) have a season-high winning streak of five games. They’re inside the West’s playoff cut, and Jefferson is the conference’s reigning Player of the Week.
Just as was happening prior to the NBA trade deadline in mid-February, Jefferson is doing everything he can he make the Jazz winners and make himself a boatload of money. Those dynamics do not necessarily go together, but it’s a favorable combination right now.
The weird thing about this convergence is how exactly nobody around here expects Jefferson to return next season, now that he’s about to become a free agent. Yet this guy and this team are closely tied to one another for the remaining seven games and whatever their playoff future holds. They’re relying on him and he’s showing how much he cares about winning, which should endear him to other teams and increase his value.
“It’s just business time, man,” Jefferson said, speaking strictly — I’m fairly certain — of the playoff chase. “It’s fun winning, for sure. It’s just like we’ve been talking about all year, ‘We need to do this, we need to do that’ to win games, and now we’re doing it.”
If this is a stressful situation, Monday was a semi-vacation. Jefferson worked 30-plus minutes, posting 24 points and 10 rebounds, before being allowed to watch the entire fourth quarter from the bench.
It helped that Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge was injured, opening the inside for Jefferson to operate. Yet there’s no doubt the Jazz’s offense is finally working as designed, to the extent that they’re making themselves tough to defend.
Jefferson is a big, big part of that. When he’s moving the ball, the Jazz are efficient. For whatever reason, that wasn’t happening right after the trade deadline, once it became clear that Jefferson was staying through the season. But now he’s the Good Al again, playing unselfishly within the system.
“He’s doing a great job of being patient, making the right pass enough times to keep the [defense] honest,” said Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin. “His teammates are doing a great job of cutting; they’re spacing the floor to give him opportunities one-on-one.”
It hardly hurts Jefferson’s cause to have Randy Foye and Mo Williams drill a combined 19 3-pointers in two games. “It works both ways,” said Gordon Hayward. “When he’s rolling, and then kicking it out to us, it opens it up for us.”
The result is the Jazz temporarily have moved ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers and into the No.8 (and last) playoff spot in the West. The surge is such that Jefferson cited the Baltimore Ravens, who got hot enough to win a Super Bowl. That comparison is a huge stretch, but who knows? This arrangement between Jefferson and the Jazz just might last a while, amid the various incentives coming into play.
A playoff push “goes a long way with showing who you are,” Corbin said.
Other teams are noticing Jefferson for future reference, but the Jazz are the only team that can benefit from him now.