Mike Terry, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — With the clock about to strike midnight on this 2010-11 season, some might be relieved the Utah Jazz are almost done with a dismal year.
Not the Jazz.
They're ticked off their charter plane is about to turn into a pumpkin and as frustrated as those evil step-sisters that they didn't end up with an invitation to the big ball.
"It still stings," Jazz forward Paul Millsap said. "Until it's over, it's going to hurt a little bit."
"I don't want it to end," Jazz guard Earl Watson added. "I wish we was going to the playoffs. I wish we was fighting to win the West and to win a championship."
That, of course, won't happen. This year, at least.
Not to pour salt on the wounded season, but when tonight's game finishes, regardless of the outcome, Utah will become the first team in NBA history to not make the postseason after posting records of 15-5 and 27-13.
On the bright side, a win over the Denver Nuggets would mark the first time since 2006 that the Jazz ended the year on a win. (They didn't make the playoffs that year, either, after going 41-41.)
"Everybody's disappointed," Jazz swingman C.J. Miles said, "especially with the expectations we had with the season and (what) we set out to do and what we were doing until we had our problem and collapsed."
Coach Tyrone Corbin laments an opportunity lost. Some playoff seasoning would've been invaluable for his team as it moves forward.
Corbin is proud about how his playoff-eliminated and injury-decimated team has continued to plug along in practice and to play hard in games.
They haven't been playing for postseason positioning, but they've shown pride in trying to end strong while getting a jumpstart on next season. In doing so, the Jazz have picked up morale-boosting wins at the Lakers and Hornets.
"It sucks that you're not in the playoffs; that's what you ultimately want to do," Jazz rookie Gordon Hayward said after Monday's 90-78 win at New Orleans. "But I think we can try to just treat the games as a learning experience, try to get better from them as a player and build for the future."
Sounds like the 21-year-old has been listening to his coach, who has been extolling the need for playing smart, hard and together despite the circumstances.
"That's what we talked about having character, and character will carry you through," Corbin said. "Whether it was on the line or not on the line, you're going to compete hard every night. You're trying to create an identity and we did a good job of that (Monday). We got to continue that going forward."
Now that the message has sunk in and is producing some positive results, the Jazz are left playing the what-if game.
"That's the other side. If we would've got it going a little bit sooner, where would we be?" Corbin said Monday night. "But, you know, you look at it from where you are and we're not going to be in the playoffs but we're going to continue to get better."
Al Jefferson, who was certain last summer and fall after joining the Jazz that he'd be gearing up for his postseason return right now, came up with a novel concept following Utah's win over the Hornets.
"I kind of hate we only got one game left. I wish we had another 10 more," Big Al said. "We might just (keep) up and play some pick-up after the season — Monday, Wednesday and Friday play pick-up."
Though disappointed his team's plans went awry, Jefferson admitted he's optimistic about the Jazz's future. He loves Corbin. He gets along with teammates. And he believes good things will happen with Utah's blend of veteran experience, including himself, Paul Millsap and Devin Harris along with promising young talent in Hayward and Derrick Favors.
"I think everything will be fine. That's why I'm not in panic mode," Jefferson said. "These months can't go by fast enough for me."
In the meantime, the Jazz are excited to have one last go at it tonight at home against Denver.
Jefferson was excited to come to Utah because of Jerry Sloan, Deron Williams and Jazz fans, and he's looking forward to playing one last time this season for those in that group that are still around.
"It's for the fans — finish out on a good note, get that win," Jefferson said. "I think it's Fan Appreciation Night, the last home game, and (I want to) go out there and play hard against a good team like Denver and get that win for our fans."
The Jazz (38-43) have lost five in a row at EnergySolutions Arena, making one last win all the more coveted.
"Anytime you go on the floor, you want to pick up a victory — especially because it's the last one, playing in front of your home crowd," Hayward added. "You don't want to let them down, so it'll be important."
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