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Last shot? With Boozer free agency looming, this may be final playoff run for 1-2 punch

Published: Saturday, April 17 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

DENVER — They spent 12 seasons as a trio — point guard John Stockton, power forward Karl Malone and coach Jerry Sloan — before finally getting where they wanted.

To the NBA Finals, that is.

And though the Utah Jazz didn't win it all in that 1996-97 season, or after returning to the Finals the next season, or for that matter in any of their 18 years together, there is something to be said for the power of longevity and continuity.

As Sloan recalls it all, he tells the tale with purpose and a point in mind.

"Look back at the history of our franchise, when we had Stockton and Malone," he said one night late last month. "By the time we made it to the Finals, people were telling us to get rid of them."

Flash forward to 2010, and Sloan, point guard Deron Williams and power forward Carlos Boozer have been together just five seasons.

When a postseason that begins Saturday night with Game 1 of the Jazz's first-round Western Conference series against the Denver Nuggets gets under way, there is an underlying sense this could be it for the triumvirate that's given Utah its best shot at a title since Stockton and Malone went their separate ways in the summer of 2003.

"We got to make the most of these opportunities," Williams said. "We don't know where Booz is going to be next year. We hope he's back with us, but we don't know."

Boozer will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and while there's been talk from both sides about the prospect of his returning for a seventh season or more with the Jazz, there's a perhaps much-likelier chance the two-time NBA All-Star's six-year run in Utah soon will be done.

"That's a possibility," Sloan said.

"We've lost guys before. ... We don't like to lose them. We like to keep them together," he added. "But I don't write the checks. My job is to try to coach who's here. Sometimes we have great players, and don't do a very good job. But that's our ambition."

It is, and that's why even after Boozer vowed last season he'd opt out of the final season of his current contract in Utah, and even after he changed his mind about that, and even after he talked openly about wanting to be traded to Chicago or Miami shortly after opting in, and even after Jazz ownership quietly questioned his commitment, and even after management pondered dealing him, Sloan stood firm in not only his willingness but also his desire to have him back.

The two met before the season began, clearing the air.

It was the first step toward a productive season indeed for the Jazz's leading scorer and rebounder, one in which he posted a career-high 55 double-doubles and — despite a well-chronicled injury history — missed just four games.

"We had a great conversation. It set the tone for the season," said Boozer, who missed the Jazz's regular-season finale — a loss to Phoenix that cost them homecourt advantage in a first-round series against the much-more-beatable Portland Trail Blazers — with a strained oblique muscle. "I told (Sloan) I was gonna play. He told me he was gonna coach, and that we'd leave everything else where it is.

"The summer was behind us," added Boozer, who didn't practice Friday but previously said the injury won't keep him out Saturday night. "I see you guys (reporters) are still talking about it, but it was behind us and we got going."

Whatever previous issues Boozer and the Jazz had really were in Sloan's rearview mirror, even if media members were in their grill as they navigated an 82-game regular season.

One reporter after another around the country would ask Sloan about Boozer, and with decided consistency the coach would defend him.

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