SALT LAKE CITY — If you didn't know better, you might have guessed the Utah Jazz were participating in some standings shenanigans on Wednesday night...
Two starters sat. Rarely used big men Kyrylo Fesenko and Kosta Koufos both played in the first quarter, and even more rarely used rookie Othyus Jeffers got mid-fourth quarter playing time.
Despite appearances in the 100-86 loss to Phoenix, there was no funny business on Jazz coach Jerry Sloan's part. The Jazz didn't want to start the playoffs on the road against Denver, a team that edged them out for the Northwest Division championship because of their 3-1 advantage over Utah this season.
It was less sinister and simpler than that.
The Jazz just didn't get enough bench production, especially compared to the Suns' output from their subs.
"We had to play really well tonight to win," Jazz backup guard Kyle Korver said, "and we just didn't really get into a flow of any kind, and they played really well."
A point, of course, that brings us back to that part about two Jazz starters sitting.
With usual starting forwards Carlos Boozer out with a strained oblique muscle and Andrei Kirilenko again sidelined with his strained calf, Sloan was forced to pluck players off of a normally deep bench to fill in the starting lineup.
Utah's starters more than held their own against Phoenix's first five. The Jazz starting five, which included Paul Millsap at the power forward spot and C.J. Miles again at small forward, outscored the Suns' starters 73-50.
That might have to be the moral victory for Utah, which fell to the No. 5 seed out West with the blowout loss.
The problem, though, for the Jazz is that their depleted reserves struggled big-time on a night when the opponents' bench exploded.
Through the first three quarters — when the Suns' lead was already at 21 and the game all but over — Phoenix's subs had outscored Utah's backups by a whopping 35-2. Up to that point, Koufos and Kyle Korver were 0-for-3 (and ended a combined 1-for-8), and Ronnie Price was 0-for-2 a night after giving Utah a big spark off the bench.
Only Fesenko had scored through the first 36 minutes, a fact that screamed off the stat sheet seeing as Phoenix reserve Channing Frye had 15 points by himself.
"They have a really good bench that's been playing well all year," said Korver, who was held scoreless in 17 minutes. "We just didn't get it done. We're missing some guys, but that's just an excuse."
The final stats weren't quite as gloomy for the Jazz bench, thanks to some mop-up points by Jeffers (five) and Sundiata Gaines (four).
But Phoenix's substitutes ended up matching their starters with 50 points, while Utah's finished with just 13 points total from their six reserves.
In other words, there wasn't a whole lot of sparking going on in EnergySolutions Arena.
The cavalry never came for Utah.
Maybe John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek, both in the building for Larry H. Miller's jersey-raising ceremony, should have offered a helping hand.
"You've got to have a little bit more production," Sloan said, "but that's what happens when you have guys that haven't played some.
"That's what happens when you have injuries," the coach added, "somebody has to step up and play."
Another problem the coaching staff had, Sloan said, is that Mehmet Okur, playing with a strained left Achilles heel, was only supposed to play in seven-minute spurts. That forced him to use Koufos and Fesenko a bit more — and way earlier — than they've been playing of late.
"That's a little bit difficult," Sloan said, "but that's part of the business."
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