With loss at Memphis, Utah falls short in bid to squeak into playoffs.
By Bill ORam
| The Salt Lake Tribune
Memphis, Tenn. • Al Jefferson sat in a folding chair for which he was too large, his knees angled upward, and shook his head slowly. His lips stuck out in a frustrated pout. Mo Williams rolled gently back and forth on a rubber medicine ball.
As minutes passed, the truth set in. Their bid to qualify for the playoffs on the last night of the season fell far short. This, they realized, was it.
Just as it began, the 39th season in Utah Jazz history ended with uncertainty. Questions that six months ago were of how this team would come together now are of how it will be taken apart. Like all things that stop working, be they automobile engines or basketball teams that fail to meet franchise standards, the Jazz will be stripped down and reassembled. The freshest, most sturdy parts will stay, the rest will be scattered.
Even though the Jazz finished with a winning record (43-39), an 86-70 loss Wednesday to the Memphis Grizzlies in the final game of the regular season halted late-charging hopes of a playoff berth. A blowout in a must-win game sent the Jazz into a premature, critical offseason in which as many as 10 players will be free agents.
While all seasons end, the force with which the finish line hit the Jazz caught them off guard. They achieved a season-low in points while shooting just 32.1 percent from the field.
"It’s different," Mo Williams said. "We wanted to give ourselves a chance at least."
For a franchise that is accustomed to playoff berths and runs, having reached the postseason all but five times since 1983, the enduring message from a somber locker room was simple.
"Somehow," Gordon Hayward said, "we’ve got to get better."
The Jazz entered Wednesday a game out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, needing only a win and a Los Angeles Lakers loss to extend their season. But the loss to the Grizzlies can serve as a microcosm of 82 games that failed to have any continuity.
Their last loss, like 28 of their 39, came on the road. Their worst quarter, as usual, was the third; they were outscored 25-13. And while Jefferson led the Jazz in both points and rebounds, finishing with 22 and 16, the Jazz were still outperformed in the paint.
Zach Randolph, Memphis’ All-Star power forward, led all scorers with 25 points and 19 rebounds, including 12 and seven in the third quarter. The Jazz trailed just 40-38 at halftime, but came completely undone in the third, a familiar problem.
"Every team has something about them that they can get better at," Mo Williams said. "Looking back at the season, maybe that was ours."
The Jazz trailed by as much as 20 points, but cut the deficit to 10 with 4:48 remaining in the game. However, Randy Foye missed a 3-pointer on the Jazz’s next possession, and Jerryd Bayless responded on the other end with a 29-foot 3-pointer to beat the shot clock.
If Foye’s 3 had gone in, coach Tyrone Corbin said, "it’s a new ballgame. ... That would have gave us a fighting chance to get back in."
The Jazz will bring the season to a tidy finish Thursday, when players return to EnergySolutions Arena and clean out their lockers, many for the last time. But as they left the visitors’ locker room at FedEx Forum, they made sure to reflect on the year with a gathering sense of nostalgia.
"I’m just proud," Corbin said, "of the way this group stayed together and fought."
A month after losing 12 of 15 games, the Jazz finished the year winners in nine of 12, a relative upswing for a season that could have been completely derailed by promises of free agency. But they got close enough to the playoffs to start dreaming. "As a team," Randy Foye said, "we felt invincible. We felt as though no one could beat us. And we felt as though if we could have gotten into the playoffs, the momentum that we had going forward was just incredible."
Now, as a proud franchise goes forward, the Jazz don’t know what they have — other than a longer offseason than they hoped to have as they consider the possibilities.