April 24, 2012; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Jazz center Al Jefferson (25) is congratulated by teammates and coaches after leaving the game late in the second half against the Phoenix Suns at Energy Solutions Arena. The Jazz defeated the Suns 100-88 to clinch a spot in the playoffs. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-US PRESSWIRE

Playoffs! Jazz Extinguish Suns to Seal the Deal

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The Utah Jazz are headed to the NBA Playoffs!!!

I just got back from the game and my adrenaline and nerves have calmed down enough that I can write a coherent recap of the game. The crowd was electric tonight and it was a real pleasure to be at the game. This was easily the loudest and most engaged the crowd has been at EnergySolutions Arena this entire season, it’s not even close. From the opening tipoff to the final buzzer, the crowd was cheering as though it was the final 2 minutes of a close game. The atmosphere felt like a playoff game, which is fitting considering what was on the line.

The Jazz started the game hot but they cooled off rather quickly. The middle of the first quarter featured two struggling offenses but the Jazz found their way out of their funk first, closing the quarter on a 6-0 run to go up 25-19. Josh Howard returned to action late in the 1st and hit his first two shots, helping with the run. Paul Millsap led the Jazz with 11 points, playing like the team leader he is.

The beginning of the 2nd quarter belonged to the Jazz rookies. Enes Kanter had two straight possessions in which he drove hard to the basket, drawing a foul each time. He had a chance for a dunk with both of them but did not convert them. A couple of years from now, he will make the basket and draw the foul. That said, Kanter did hit all 4 free throws. Maybe a minute later, it was Alec Burks’ turn. He slashed to the basket, caught the pass, and attempted a vicious one-handed dunk that would have made SportsCenter’s top plays had it gone down. Instead, he drew the foul and made both free throws. The Jazz played excellent defense in the 1st half, particularly in the 2nd quarter. One possession featured back-to-back blocks from Jefferson and Favors. Speaking of which, Derrick Favors is going to be an elite defensive player in this league. He might already be one. Even from my upper bowl seats, it is very obvious how special a player he is. It’s really a treat to see him play. To accentuate my point, Favors had 5 blocks…in the first half alone.

Both teams shot around 40% for the half but as a fan who was there, I can say that both teams are playing incredibly hard and clearly know what’s at stake. The Jazz forced 9 turnovers in the half and the Suns’ 3-point shooting is keeping them in the game.

Scary moment early in the 3rd quarter when Big Al took what I think was an inadvertent elbow to the face. I didn’t see exactly what happened and the replay on the JumboTron wasn’t clear. Sidebar: when are the Jazz finally going to invest in a new JumboTron? Seeing the ones in other arenas, the one used at ESA is pretty outdated. Back to Al. After whatever happened he was crouched over holding his head. He checked out of the game and headed to the locker room shortly thereafter. I wish the screen at the game would give injury updates during times like this. Fans listening to the radio broadcast or watching at home get updates as soon as they’re available but fans at the game are left in the dark. We had no idea what happened of if it was serious. That uncertainty, however, did leave to a raucous reaction when he checked back into the game with 3 minutes left in the quarter.

I don’t know what was happening during the 3rd quarter with the officiating but there was a few minutes span where it felt like every other possession the Jazz were being whistled for one ticky tack foul after another. The fans at the arena are getting close to rioting if a call doesn’t go our way soon. Phoenix cut the lead to one but Alec Burks scored 5 straight, a 3-pointer and a driving basket, to put the Jazz up 6. As with most basketball games, this one has featured a lot of runs from both teams.

About 3 minutes into the 4th quarter I realized Gordon Hayward had not checked out of the game in the 2nd half. I told my sister, who I attended the game with, that it was likely he was going to play 24 straight minutes. Spoiler alert: that’s exactly what he did. The starters checked back into the game far earlier than I think Corbin wanted them too but the 2nd unit struggled mightily. I should correct that, it wasn’t just the starters but Corbin went with the big lineup for nearly the entire 4th quarter. With about 8 minutes left it was Harris, Hayward, Millsap, Favors, Jefferson and they closed out the game. I really love this lineup. Millsap’s versatility makes him an interesting weapon at the 3 and these are the Jazz’s 5 best players so it makes sense to play them at the same time. I don’t mind them not all starting the game together but I love seeing them finish it. The Jazz stayed ahead most of the quarter but the Suns battled back. That’s when it was Big Al time. He took control of the game with about 3 minutes left, hitting one big shot after another and the emotion from the players, the fans, and from him in particular was overwhelming. After one shot that put the Jazz back up by double digits, Big Al pounded his chest triumphantly.

I was so impressed with the fight of the team tonight. They played hard from start to finish and they outlasted the Suns, outplaying them in the 4th to cinch that final playoff spot. The Jazz fans brought their A game tonight as well. I’ve been critical of the fans this year for how they booed Deron Williams, whom I loudly cheered for on his return, and the awkward feeling of Jimmer’s return to SLC. Tonight the fans showed why we get the reputation for being so rowdy and why ESA is one of the loudest arenas! In the closing minutes of the game as victory was becoming more certain, most of the arena started chanting “Play-offs! Play-offs!” It was really exciting. One great moment was the Jazz fans showing some class toward Phoenix. When Steve Nash checked out of the game in the last minute, much of the crowd gave him a nice ovation. That wasn’t nearly as loud as what came later, though. I give Coach Corbin some props for giving Big Al some consideration. With 14 seconds left, he substituted Tinsley in for Jefferson in what appeared to have the singular purpose of allowing the crowd to give Big Al a standing ovation as he left the floor, which we did. He was greeted with hugs from coaches and teammates alike. It was really a great scene.

The Jazz got so many great contributions tonight. Double-doubles from Jefferson, Millsap, Favors. 8 assists from Hayward. 5 blocks from Favors. 26 points from Millsap. Key 3-pointers in the 2nd half from Harris. Energy plays from Kanter and Burks. What’s up next? The playoffs!!!

The Jazz still have one game remaining on Thursday vs the Blazers. If Denver loses to OKC tomorrow and MIN on Thursday and the Jazz win, Utah will take the #7. More likely, however, is the Jazz will face off against the Spurs in a 1 vs 8 matchup. I don’t care who we face, I’m just thrilled the young guys get this experience and that Big Al gets to go the playoffs for the first time since he rode the bench for Boston as a rookie.

Did I mention the Utah Jazz are headed to the NBA Playoffs?

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Tags: Al Jefferson Big Al Gordon Hayward NBA Playoffs Paul Millsap Phoenix Suns Steve Nash Utah Jazz

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