If by some miracle the Utah Jazz do make the playoffs and they are still mathematically alive after beating Houston, barely, 85-83 in the Delta Center Monday night perhaps they will begin to see Jerry Sloan's picture.
The win put Utah a game up on New Orleans/Oklahoma City, which lost Monday, for the ninth spot in the Western playoff picture and helped it gain slightly toward the eighth and final playoff berth.
The playoffs bring on the physical play that separates the men from the wannabes, and the Jazz coach was not at all satisfied with what he considered his team's whining play. That complaining, in Sloan's thoughts, helped fritter away what had been an 11-point lead against a team that lost 7-foot-6 All-Star Yao Ming to a broken foot with 3:51 left in the first quarter but found the resolve to shove the Jazz around the rest of the night.
"We complain to the officials as much as any time since I've been here," said Sloan, in his 18th season as Jazz head coach. "We started crying because they bumped us right at the beginning, and we cried until it was over."
Borrowing from former Jazz coach Frank Layden, whom he assisted, Sloan changed the Layden phrase "You can't teach height," to, "You can't teach toughness."
Perhaps a playoff series could help, though that's a pretty remote possibility with five games left, including division winner Denver on Wednesday in the Delta Center.
That lack of toughness, Sloan said, ruined Utah's concentration through much of the game and was perhaps responsible for giving Rocket Juwan Howard (25 points) a fighting chance at winning the game, or at least tying it.
Howard got wide open in the right corner and, stepping inside the arc to be able to get the shot off, Howard made the final attempt, but it was clearly after the game's final buzzer and was immediately disallowed.
"I was disappointed in us giving them the ability to shoot the three," said Sloan. "I guess we have to do a better job of explaining how to play that. We didn't guard him. I told them you've got to stay at home on the 3-point shots.
"Some of that goes back to when you get your feelings hurt a little bit, you lose your concentration. That's why you have to learn to be able to fight through those things. Then next time it comes up, you don't let that same mistake bury you and hope that they do miss or in that case that they got it off a little bit late."
Mehmet Okur was to have been guarding Howard on the play on the opposite side of the court from where the ball was unbounded, but Okur said he noted the shot clock and decided instead to help on the man driving toward the lane who kicked it out to Howard.
"I knew shot clock running down and tried to force him into bad shot so it was a shot-clock violation," Okur said, though Sloan said he'd told the players to stay with the man they were guarding.
Sloan was still up in arms about the whining because it gives other teams an advantage, knowing they can belt them around. "They wanted to stroke us. They were licking their chops to play us. I would too.
"This is getting to be ridiculous the way we cry and complain. Just because you get hammered a little bit. That's part of the game. You hope that they hammer you again and stand up to it rather than move to the outside."
Officials turn a deaf ear, and concentration is nowhere to be found.
"It's mind-boggling to me to see it continue and continue. We forgot what we were doing, forgot how we were trying to play certain things defensively," Sloan said.
When the Jazz just play the game, he said, "I feel pretty good about them."
Utah also had concentration lapses offensively, committing 20 turnovers good for 25 Rocket points. Defensively, they let the Rockets penetrate for 50 points in the paint, a lot of them by quick guard Rafer Alston, who finished with 22, often getting past the 6-9 Andrei Kirilenko, who finished with three points but six assists with the 6-2 Alston often guarding him.
Kirilenko noted he got too anxious after not getting a first-half shot and rushed too much He had a turnover and missed three attempt in the Rockets' 10-0 run to start the third quarter. He finished with six turnovers.Kirilenko blocked a shot with :07.9 left by Keith Bogans that could have put Houston up 85-84, but Carlos Boozer fouled trying to strip Bogans of the rebound. Bogans made none of the free throws, and the Rockets were incensed that Matt Harpring wasn't called for getting into the lane early on the second. Harpring thought Dikembe Mutombo stepped into him forcing him to move early. Boozer rebounded and made one of two free throws to ensure the Rockets would have to make at least a two to tie.
Chase for the playoffs
7. Lakers 41-37
7. Kings 41-37
9. Jazz 38-39 2 1/2
10. Hornets 37-40 3 1/2