Kragthorpe: It's no longer about experience for Jazz
Thanks partly to a mystical combination of forces including the Golden State Warriors and the NBA office, the Jazz are in San Antonio today, and they're way ahead of schedule.
Which actually proves there's no such thing as a timetable in this league anymore.
As logical as it may seem to suggest that playing in this season's Western Conference finals is the beginning of a step-by-step progression toward a championship for the Jazz, the reality is this may be the best chance they will have.
If they're here now, launching a best-of-seven series with the Spurs at the AT&T Center this afternoon, everyone should realize that weird things could keep them from getting there in the future.
And the players understand that. "You want to take advantage of the opportunity," said forward Matt Harpring, "because these opportunities don't come by often."
This is not the East, where the Detroit Pistons can reach the conference finals five years in a row. This is not the West of the 1990s, when the Jazz of Old could get to this point five times in seven seasons.
The New Jazz have the makings of another run of consistency, with a group of developing players. Yet the West is so loaded that there's no guarantee of regularly advancing to the conference finals, because there's likely to be somebody resembling Golden State every year - maybe not necessarily knocking off a No. 1 seed in the first round, as the Warriors did to Dallas, but certainly shaking up the playoffs.
Goofy stuff can happen in the postseason, as the Phoenix Suns know. They would still be playing against the Spurs today and would probably win the series, if not for the NBA's one-game suspensions of Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw. As it is, regardless of the Jazz's horrible history in San Antonio, I'm convinced they caught another break because the better team lost that series.
The idea that these '07 playoffs were just for the sake of experience for the Jazz lost validity in a 48-hour period in early May when Golden State completed its first-round upset and the Jazz won Game 7 in Houston. At that point, continuing to advance became almost as much of a responsibility as an opportunity for the Jazz. They were temporarily out of Texas, and now they're back.
The Jazz responded by beating the Warriors in a much tighter, tougher series than a 4-1 margin suggests. But they did it, and here they are: one series away from the NBA Finals.
Technically, this is all a case of only mild overachievement. If the Jazz reach the Finals, they would do it by beating only the Nos. 5, 8 and 3 seeds in the West. After that, the East's Detroit or Cleveland should frighten nobody.
So could the Jazz really win it all, already?
"Why not?" said Andrei Kirilenko.
Seriously, why not? At least, why not now, as much as any time in the future?
What's interesting about this team is how playoff inexperience has not seemed to matter. John Stockton and Karl Malone did not reach the conference finals until their seventh year together, but this generation of the Jazz has grown up faster. If they could win a Game 7 in Houston, they could win once in San Antonio at some point in this series.
They played progressively better in each of four games in Houston, stayed composed down the stretch in three home games with the Warriors and responded to easily their worst playoff performance with a complete effort in the next game at Golden State.
"Our guys have seemed to learn from those things," said assistant coach Scott Layden, "which is an exciting thing to see."
In charge of player personnel in those days, Layden witnessed the Jazz's gradual rise in the '90s. The same thing could happen again with Carlos Boozer, Deron Williams and the rest, but who knows? "You don't know how many times you'll get this opportunity again," Williams said.
"We're not satisfied," Boozer said.
The story could change in a week or two, when the Jazz are eliminated by the Spurs, fall back on the achievement of reaching the conference finals and look ahead to next year. But for now, it's all right there for them. Being this close to a championship leads Kirilenko to conclude in a wonderfully fragmented sentence, "It's worth to try."
At this point, he could not have said it better.