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(George Frey | The Associated Press) Utah Jazz's Paul Millsap, right, shoots past Orlando Magic's Quentin Richardson during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Salt Lake City, Saturday, April 21, 2012. The Jazz beat the Magic 117-107 in overtime.
Kragthorpe: Jazz have come too far to lose now

NBA » Organization has never had to push so hard so late for playoff berth.

By Kurt Kragthorpe

| Tribune Columnist

First Published Apr 23 2012 01:09 pm • Last Updated Apr 23 2012 11:43 pm

They’ve won four overtime games and lost a four-overtime game.

They’ve beaten Miami because LeBron James chose to pass and topped Sacramento because Al Jefferson scored after what Devin Harris insisted was a pass.

At a glance

Jazz’s close calls since All-Star break

Date Result Ending

March 2 Jazz 99, Miami 98 Udonis Haslem miss

March 15 Jazz 111, Minnesota 115 (OT) Jazz recover after fading

March 17 Jazz 99, Golden State 92 (OT) Derrick Favors finishes strong

March 22 Jazz 103, Sacramento 102 Al Jefferson’s follow

March 25 Atlanta 139, Jazz 133 (4 OT) Jazz miss repeated chances

March 30 Sacramento 104, Jazz 103 Winning tip ruled too late

April 4 Phoenix 107, Jazz 105 Tying follow ruled too late

April 16 Jazz 123, Dallas 121 (3 OT) Devin Harris key in 3rd OT

April 21 Jazz 117, Orlando 107 (OT) Harris blocks winning attempt

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They’ve defeated San Antonio when Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili stayed home and held off the Los Angeles Lakers during the worst shooting night of Kobe Bryant’s life.

They’ve lost to Sacramento and Phoenix at home while everybody waited for the referees to say their shots came after the buzzer.

Add it up, and the Jazz have experienced a two-month stretch unlike any other in franchise history. Their adventures since the NBA All-Star break in late February have positioned them to earn a playoff berth Tuesday night by beating Phoenix at EnergySolutions Arena in their second-to-last game of the season.

Mix in the circumstances of the Jazz’s standing to lose their first-round draft pick by making the playoffs, and this 66-game season will hold a unique position in team history. In their previous 37 seasons, the Jazz never played their way into the postseason at this late stage.

They’ve come too far and agonized too much — while winning, especially — not to take advantage of this opportunity. The Jazz stood 11th in the West at the break, 2.5 games behind eighth-place Portland, and faced a road-heavy schedule. How they’ve arrived here is the real story, amid so many games that could have gone either way.

So what’s it like to live through all these close contests?

"Just dandy," coach Tyrone Corbin said wryly before Monday’s practice. "Having a great time."

Even with those side effects of unnecessary stress, Corbin and the Jazz have survived a wild ride.

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"It’s been really rewarding and refreshing to watch the guys go through it," Corbin said. "We’ve put ourselves in some situations that we shouldn’t have been in, when we lose leads, but the great thing about it is we fought back and gave ourselves an opportunity in overtime."

After falling to 15-18 by losing at Sacramento in the first game after the break, the Jazz are now 19-12. They’ve played through significant injuries to four players who, as of February, were rotation regulars: Raja Bell, Josh Howard, Earl Watson and C.J. Miles.

Phoenix’s recovery from a 14-20 record at the break was unforeseeable, but the Jazz benefitted from the personnel problems of Minnesota, Portland and Houston. The result is a Jazz surge toward a playoff bid that I’ve alternately described as "not going to happen" and "unavoidable."

Clearly, the Jazz would not be here without a series of narrow victories. Everybody remembers the heartbreakers more than the escapes, but the Jazz have won more than their share of close games. Four of those 19 victories have come in overtime, and seven others were by seven or fewer points.

It all started March 2, when James passed up a last shot, Udonis Haslem missed and the Jazz edged Miami by one. Then came a six-game winning streak, during which the Jazz needed overtime to outlast Minnesota and Golden State at home, Bryant shot 3-for-20 in Los Angeles, and Jefferson beat Sacramento at the end.

The streak ended with a four-OT loss at Atlanta, and two defeats came when the Jazz failed to beat the buzzer. But they got a big break when the Spurs rested their three stars — even so, the Jazz had to come from eight points behind in the fourth quarter. After blowing their own lead, the Jazz managed to beat Dallas in three overtimes, then topped Orlando (without Dwight Howard) in overtime Saturday.

That’s the nature of this season. In 26 of their 64 games, the margin in the final 24 seconds of regulation has been three points or fewer.

So maybe the Jazz should have made this playoff push easier on themselves, but they also could have been making other plans at this point.


Twitter: @tribkurt

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