Here it is folks: the Day of Days. The Ultimate Test. The Final Battle … as it were.
By now every Jazz fan knows the stakes: Win tonight, or go home
As of now, Utah holds a one game lead over Phoenix. A win tonight guarantees a playoff berth – no matter the outcome tomorrow against Portland. A loss makes the playoffs very unlikely.
Make no mistake: the Playoffs are here.
In point of fact, tonight’s game might be the best playoff game the Jazz get to participate in, regardless of who wins or loses.
Winning, after all, merely secures an eighth seeded match-up against the dreaded San Antonio Spurs; and unless Coach Corbin revamps Utah’s offense, Coach G-Pop will pick the Jazz apart like a poorly timed pregame Q&A session.
Oh sure, Utah might win a game or two – these Spurs aren’t THE SPURS of the golden era, when they hammered off four championships in a nine-year span; indeed, aside from a few changes this team directly reflects the Spurs team that was squashed in the first round by Memphis last year – but no one expects them to go farther than humanly possible. You can only do so much with an injured ball club consisting of roughly eight or nine dressed players.
But alas, I digress. The playoffs wont happen unless Utah beats Phoenix tonight (although, in point of fact, G-Pop might prefer to play Utah in the first round and therefore opt to play his starters tomorrow night in Phoenix – but who wants to pray for that kind of merciful action) … and Utah CAN beat Phoenix, in the same way I knew they COULD beat Dallas. Third times the charm, right? RIGHT?
Utah faced the Suns twice this season, with the results offering a mixed bag.
First, on March 14, Phoenix clobbered the Jazz 120-111 at the US Airway Center, taking a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter that Nash and co. never relinquished. Channing Frye, Marcin Gortat and Jared Dudley each scored in the 20s, while Steve Nash handed out a whopping 16-assists to go along with 12 points.
Milsap and Big Al scored 18 apiece in that game, and even though our bench (consisting of Gordy, Favors, Tinsley, Watson, Miles, and Kanter) outscored Phoenix’s 55-24, our starters – namely Harris, Howard and Bell – offered only minimal resistance.
More recently in game two (on April 4) Al Jefferson made a jumper to tie the game at 105 apiece with nine seconds remaining, but Steve Nash took Big Al off the dribble and drained a 17-foot jumper leaving just one second on the clock. After a timeout, CJ Miles took a bizarre, high-arcing 3-point shot from the corner, which Milsap then tipped in mere milliseconds after time expired. Phoenix escaped with a 107-105 victory – and the series tie-breaker.
In each game Utah won the points in the paint battle (outscoring Phoenix by a mere 18 points combined), but gave up far too many threes (22 combined in both games, or 66 total points, versus Utah’s 24 total points made from downtown).
But that was then, this is now. Since that April 4th match-up, Utah has gone 6-3 and received production from the team entire – not just Milsap and Jefferson, but DeMarre Carroll, Jamaal Tinsley; and a reinvigorated Devin Harris (who did not play in the last game), not to mention a much more grown-up and refined Gordy Hayward.
I hate making predictions, but I have the same feeling about tonight that I did right before the Jazz stunned Dallas in a 2OT victory. Tonight’s game certainly wont be easy – Nash gives Utah headaches with his dribble-drive-penetration; while Dudley, Frye and co. are capable outside shooters. But with Harris’ and Gordy’s sudden emergence as bonefide 3-point threats, Utah should be able to level the playing field, if only slightly.
As for injuries, Channing Frye and Grant Hill both remain questionable for tonight’s contest (YAY!), while Utah hopes to welcome back Howard and Bell (both absent since mid-March) with at least a minimal amount of playing time (giving our starters some rest).
As typical of the Suns, I expect a run n’ gun style of basketball tonight. They rank below the Jazz in points per game (at just 98.4), but are capable of throwing up 120+ as they’ve done five times this season. They also give up 94.1 points per contest (ranking 27th), meaning a team is never out of a game against Phoenix; even if Gentry’s squad carries a 25 point lead with only two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Seriously.
Utah can win tonight! But do not fret Jazz fans, if Utah loses, they retain possession of Minnesota’s first round pick (acquired during the Big Al trade). I’m of the mindset that Corbin doesn’t need any more youngins on his team, but at the very least a loss doesn’t spell the end of the world. And with Golden State doing a fairly decent job of making sure we hang onto their draft pick, all signs point to a healthy off season for Kevin O’Connor no matter the outcome against Nash and co.
But if Utah DOES win, the playoff experience might actually help out more in the long run than another up and coming “project”.
Either way, we win.