Al Jefferson dropped his head, paused, then looked upward. He said it had been years. Years since he played for a team that beat the Los Angeles Lakers. Years since he sweated, dug in and muscled up during a game that felt like a playoff contest.
The Jazz's 102-96 victory against the Lakers on Friday night at EnergySolutions Arena was technically only Utah's 17th regular-season game of the year. But to everyone from the Jazz center to Utah coach Jerry Sloan, the Jazz's 19-point comeback win felt like much, much more.
"We was down, we fought back, we didn't give up. We went against all odds," said Jefferson, who recorded 20 points and eight rebounds. "It was just amazing, man. I'm overwhelmed. I've never experienced nothing like this before. And to be a part of it it just meant a lot to me."
He was not the only one.
A straight-faced Jazz guard Deron Williams initially compared Utah's come-from-behind victory to winning the NBA championship. Williams was joking. But his point was made. The Jazz (12-5) had been knocked out of the playoffs by the Lakers (13-3) during the past three seasons. And during a game when Utah survived a fourth-quarter scare by Los Angeles' Kobe Bryant, the Jazz displayed the fight, heart and unity Williams knows his team must possess if it hopes to accomplish something more lasting and real this year.
"We did it being physical, being tough," said Williams, who scored a team-high 29 points on 10-of-14 shooting and dished out a game-high 12 assists.
Toughness was the primary word used by several key Jazz personnel following the win.
Utah outrebounded Los Angeles 42-38 and outscored the Lakers 85-63 during the final three quarters. Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Andrei Kirilenko and Raja Bell all displayed moments when they refused to concede, either clawing for loose balls or punching the air in triumph.
In addition, a Jazz team that started the season searching for an identity has found one. Utah has rallied from at least 11 points down for seven victories. The Jazz will not back down from anyone.
"It's a big stepping stone for us as a team," Bell said. "We've played some pretty good teams and come back. But we haven't played anyone with the resume of the Lakers. ... And it's something that I think we all now believe we can do."
Bryant scored a game-high 31 points to top the Lakers, including 14 consecutive fourth-quarter points during a 2 minute, 25 second-stretch.
"They are a great team. They got a lot of talent," Bryant said. "They play that way all the time. You can take the softest player in the league and put him on the Jazz, and he'll turn into a tough guy."
The Lakers hit 6 of their first 8 shots and took a 15-8 lead.
Los Angeles did not slow down. Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol and Bryant recorded at least six points before the 2-minute mark in the first period, and the Lakers' margin quickly stretched to 26-14.
But Utah reserve point guards Earl Watson and Ronnie Price brought the Jazz to life for the third consecutive game. The small, speedy duo sent their team on a thrilling 11-0 run, highlighted by a leaping tomahawk dunk from Price.
"That changed the game," Watson said.
The Jazz's reserves combined for 18 points, 12 rebounds and six assists during the first half, while Utah outscored Los Angeles 29-17 during the second period.
The third quarter only became more heated, as baskets, fouls and blows were traded. Even Jazz coach Jerry Sloan increased his charge, wildly reacting several times to what he perceived were missed calls.
Utah rode the momentum, pulling ahead 70-68 following a softly dropped in floater by Jefferson. A 3 from the left wing by Bell followed, and the Jazz carried a 75-72 lead into the final period.