Playing without the injured Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers managed to beat San Antonio. So the natural reaction is to guess that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was messing around again, resting Tim Duncan and Tony Parker for the playoffs.
Wrong. Duncan played well in 34 minutes, while Parker played poorly in 28 minutes of the Spurs’ 91-86 loss Sunday night in Los Angeles. Popovich and the Spurs gave it their best shot — whether as a favor to Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey (a former San Antonio employee), as an effort to earn a No. 1 seed or for the sake of integrity — but the Lakers just performed better.
When the Lakers’ Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks are combining for five 3-pointers early in the fourth quarter of a close game, there could be only one conclusion: The Jazz are cursed, right?
In reality, this simply is their own fault.
You can blame Kobe, an NBA conspiracy, the Lakers’ opponents or just plain bad luck for everything that’s transpired in April in damaging the Jazz’s playoff chances. Ultimately, this problem is their own creation.
So the Jazz find themselves needing to win tonight at Minnesota and Wednesday at Memphis, plus have Houston beat the Lakers in Los Angeles, to earn the Western Conference’s final playoff spot. Just to add to the unlikelihood of it all, Houston may be locked into the No. 6 seed by tip-off Wednesday and have little incentive, other than coach Kevin McHale’s personal rivalry with the Lakers.
In any case, the Jazz — and those of us wondering if coach Tyrone Corbin and players such as Al Jefferson and Gordon Hayward would have redeemed themselves with another playoff opportunity — will lament all of their missed opportunities. They lost games they should have won at Milwaukee, Cleveland and Chicago in early March. They also let tired, beaten-down teams like Chicago, Boston and New York come into EnergySolutions Arena and win at the end of long trips.
It’s true that the Jazz (42-38) would be in the playoffs right now if not for the Lakers’ recent surge, with a series of vintage performances from Bryant and a bunch of narrow escapes. Even before Sunday’s outcome, the crusher came Friday when Golden State could not finish off the Lakers after Kobe’s injury late in the game. Carl Landry missed an open shot in the last few seconds and Stephen Curry’s near-miracle attempt from deep in the backcourt bounced off the rim.
The Jazz would have welcomed any help lately, while the Lakers have won seven of eight games. But it really should take at least 45 wins to make the playoffs in the deep, competitive West, and the Jazz won’t get there. Having played their way into a position of needing help, they can only give credit to the Lakers, who responded admirably Sunday. Steve Blake scored 23 points; Parker went 1-for-10 and was benched in the fourth quarter for “playing awful,” according to Popovich.
Dwight Howard delivered 26 points and 17 rebounds and the Lakers held San Antonio to 37-percent shooting. They deserved to win Sunday, and they will have earned their playoff spot.
That will mean a first-round series against Oklahoma City — a tough draw, obviously. But to those who wonder about the merits of such an exercise for the Jazz, I point to Corbin, Jefferson and Hayward. Wouldn’t you want to see how these guys performed, a year later? While being swept by the Spurs last spring, Corbin was overmatched by Popovich, Jefferson was overwhelmed by San Antonio’s defense and Hayward shot 18 percent from the field.
How would they have responded? We’re unlikely to find out. That’s the Jazz’s fault, and nobody else’s.