In the latest most important game of the year, the Jazz tried and tried and tried real hard, but they simply could not get their business done.
Final truth in numbers: Thunder 90, Jazz 80.
Final truth in knowing what your eyeballs tell you: Oklahoma City is just better than the Jazz, on a good night, on a bad night, on almost every kind of night in-between, including a night stuck smack in the middle of a playoff race.
“They’re a great team,” DeMarre Carroll said, afterward. “They did everything they needed to do to win the game.”
And the Jazz did not.
This particular contest on Tuesday night was of substantial interest in a picture both narrow and broad. More on the specifics in a minute. First the broader view, with some details mixed in:
Pitted against the Lakers, the Jazz continued their quest to ease on into that last playoff spot in the West. As they’ve done so, the question of how important that achievement really is hovers over them, still. Climbing the mountain for … an eighth seed? Is that all that much for which to play?
A tip of the wide brim to the Jazz here. Apparently it is. It matters to them. They haven’t been able to completely steady their ride down the season’s back stretch. Some nights they’ve come out tentative and lacking intensity, at times taking shots they had no business taking, at times playing defense polluted by timidity. But most nights of late, including Tuesday night at EnergySolutions, they’ve brought more effort and tougher play while working their modest pursuit to qualify.
Against the Thunder, they played strong, hustling defense, but their offensive execution over long stretches looked like a skidding truck that flew off a county two-lane and blew through a guard rail. They chucked away 17 turnovers and shot 39 percent, a fact eased a bit by OKC’s shooting 39 percent, too.
Whether or not the Jazz make the playoffs, the experience their younger players have gotten through the chase, an endeavor that feels more meaningful than it actually is, will benefit them in their ongoing ascent toward whatever comes next. What stands out is that for them these games do have meaning and their mostly promising performances in them have spurred their incremental growth.
“The fight we had defensively was nice,” said Gordon Hayward. “We just have to attack more on offense.”
An additional bonus for the Jazz — and their fans — is that those small steps are coming at the Lakers’ expense. Even a marginalized triumph for the Jazz over a franchise that spends double the money on its roster and that gets quadruple the national attention is suddenly a whole lot less marginal.
Sometimes, you have to wonder which carries more weight for and brings more happiness to Jazz fans — the prospect of their team making the playoffs or the prospect of their team eliminating Kobe’s Lakers?
The more narrow picture against the Thunder was this:
Could the Jazz hang with a team they might face in the postseason’s first round? After all, what good does qualifying for the playoffs do if it’s going to result in the same kind of lopsided embarrassment the Jazz suffered against the Spurs a year ago?
Turns out, the Jazz did hang within shouting distance of OKC, but they could not break through a barrier built by the Thunder over the first three periods. If the Jazz were motivated to win, so were the Thunder. They are battling with San Antonio for the best record and the top seed in the West. So, this wasn’t one of those rudderless affairs in mid-January or a listless one in April where a disinterested contender floats into town and blows on out, eager, come what may on the scoreboard, to get out of Dodge and away from the thin air and whacko fans in ESA.
The Thunder outscored the Jazz in every quarter but the third, taking a 45-35 lead at the end of the first half and holding on through the undulations of the second. Bottom line is this: The Jazz could not hit enough shots to win, and on their way to missing too much, they threw the ball around like a molten rock.
“The pace of the game was slow,” Tyrone Corbin said. “It was a grind-it-out type of game, so you can’t afford to miss opportunities there.”
The Jazz did miss an opportunity by missing so many shots.
But what we know after Tuesday night is what we already knew: The Jazz are diligent, but limited. If they are fortunate enough to get past the Lakers for that eighth spot, and they play Oklahoma City in the first round, turn out the lights, the party will end quickly.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM, 1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.