For all the talk about containing Phoenix point guard Steve Nash, keeping the Suns’ 3-point-shooting big men honest and instantly delivering NBA postseason dreams to the Jazz’s devoted fans, Utah small forward Gordon Hayward opted for simplicity.
Two years removed from Butler University and playing the best basketball of his 22-year-old life, Hayward tossed out an idea that was more March Madness than prime-time professional pressure.
The season-defining game the Jazz play Tuesday against the Suns at 8:30 p.m. inside EnergySolutions Arena? The make-or-break matchup that’ll be broadcast nationally by TNT and could send Utah to the postseason for the first time since 2010? The contest that’s been circled on the Jazz’s calendar for weeks and only grew in importance as Utah fought through single and triple overtimes to slowly move upward in the Western Conference playoff picture, while Phoenix fought off crucial injuries just to stay alive?
It’s this simple, Hayward said: do or die.
Play true Jazz basketball. Then win the 48-minute fight, and suddenly give meaning to a crazy, unpredictable lockout-shortened season.
"It’s like a play-in game," said Hayward, referring to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. "It’s very important to us."
And to the Jazz’s up-and-down season.
Utah (34-30) can still make the playoffs if it falls to the Suns (33-31). But redemption would instantly take the form of a prayer. Phoenix plays San Antonio for its season-closer Wednesday, and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is expected to rest key players after his team won home-court advantage in the West by beating a struggling Portland club 124-89 on Monday.
Preparation is secondary for Utah. Effort and execution are everything, since the Jazz know the Suns by heart.
Nash has made an All-NBA living turning the pick-and-roll into high art, and warning lights shine the second he sneaks into the lane. Key Phoenix players Jared Dudley, Shannon Brown, Channing Frye, Markieff Morris and Nash are shooting at least 34.6 percent behind the 3-point line. Reserves Michael Redd and Sebastian Telfair burned Utah toward the end of the Suns’ 107-105 win April 4 at ESA — a victory that provided Phoenix with a potential playoff tiebreaker. Center Marcin Gortat stands taller than ever — team-highs in average points (15.7) and rebounds (10), fourth in the NBA with a 55.9 field-goal shooting percentage — while backup big man Robin Lopez has solidified the Suns’ once-vulnerable interior.
"[Nash is] a difficult guard to guard because he reads all the situations. He’s run the pick-and-roll for 20 years now or whatever it is," said assistant Jeff Hornacek, who is the Jazz’s lead coaching scout for the game. "He’s like John Stockton in terms of, no matter how you guard him, he has an adjustment for it. So the biggest thing is just to have effort all game long."
What a game it should be.
It’s Utah versus Nash. Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry against Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin. An efficient, fine-tuned Suns offense that ranks fifth out of 30 teams in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.61) facing a Utah squad that religiously runs inside out and has become one of the NBA’s toughest teams to handle in the paint. It’s Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Devin Harris and a Jazz team that has continually proven its legitimacy on center stage for one night in Salt Lake City.
Win and Utah’s in.
Then it’s the playoffs, baby.
"It comes down to one game," Harris said. "If we win, then we’re where we want to be. If not, then we’re going to need some help."
Jefferson was named Monday by the NBA as the Western Conference player of the week. He averaged 20 points and a league-high 15.3 rebounds while Utah went 3-0 and moved into eighth place in the West.
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