Just in case this was their last appearance of the season at EnergySolutions Arena, Jazz players stayed on the court for a few extra minutes Friday night, tossing mini basketballs into the seats to thank the fans for their support.
Having lost both their composure and a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter, the Jazz managed to make a 107-100 defeat of Minnesota feel like a genuine achievement. To subdue the short-handed Timberwolves, they needed almost all of Al Jefferson’s 40 points, including his clutch, frantic shot that barely beat the 24-second clock in the last minute.
“We fed Big Al, and he carried us,” Gordon Hayward said.
And even if this exercise required much more work than anyone anticipated, the not-quite-sellout crowd was into it. The reaction suggested the Jazz would be welcomed back in the building, if they get some help from the Los Angeles Lakers’ opponents and qualify for the playoffs.
No home schedule in the franchise’s previous 33 seasons in Utah ever ended this way, with nobody knowing whether the Jazz (42-38) would be returning to ESA this month — other than to clean out their lockers, anyway.
If these guys do keep playing, it definitely will be intriguing to find out how much coach Tyrone Corbin and players such as Jefferson and Hayward learned from last spring’s playoff embarrassment.
But this may have been the end for this team, to a major degree. Factoring in the uncertainty surrounding Jefferson, Paul Millsap and all of the Jazz’s other free-agents-to-be, the result was a weird atmosphere Friday. Other than Jefferson, the Jazz seemed to be treating this event like an exhibition game. Apparently, nobody explained that they actually need to win games, not just have the Lakers lose them.
You figured this would be the Jazz’s night when Hayward banked in a running 33-footer to end the first quarter — 13 feet shorter, but from the same angle as his memorable miss for Butler, and three years too late.
But the Jazz went from leading by nine points in the second quarter to trailing by seven in the third quarter to leading by seven with 5:19 remaining to trailing by one. Derrick Favors’ flagrant foul contributed to Minnesota’s five-point sequence and, in case that was not enough retaliation against the Timberwolves’ J.J. Barea, Jazz guard Mo Williams followed with an aggressive offensive foul.
And when a subsequent possession ended with Williams’ wild shot, Corbin shook his head in disgust and muttered to his assistants on the bench.
Fortunately for the Jazz, Minnesota missed six straight shots and Jefferson did just enough — highlighted by recovering a ball that was knocked away from him and floating in a 14-foot, one-handed shot for a 101-98 lead with 39.3 seconds left.
That took care of the Jazz’s obligations for now, although nothing suggests that winning Monday at Minnesota will be routine. The playoff quest may come down to Wednesday’s game at Memphis.
Ultimately, it is ridiculous that the Jazz are in this position, having to worry about teams other than themselves in order to make the playoffs. Believe me, they have enough trouble winning their own games.
“You are where you are,” Corbin observed before the game, saying his team would “try to handle the business at hand.”
There were scattered boos as the Jazz seemingly refused to take control of the game. Yet in the end, the fans were appreciative. They may want more from this team, but they also seemed to realize this might be as good as it gets in 2012-13.