Laura Seitz, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Kevin O'Connor used a fun moment at the end of the 2010-11 season — one admittedly plagued by "a second half of turmoil" — to motivate some recent additions to the Utah Jazz family.
Following the Jazz's 107-103 win over Denver in Wednesday's season-finale, the general manager grabbed Al Jefferson, Devin Harris and Derrick Favors while the rest of the team launched and lobbed autographed paraphernalia into the cheering crowd at EnergySolutions Arena.
"The place, it was like a playoff game," O'Connor said at the Jazz's locker cleanout session Thursday. "It was nuts (Wednesday) night. It was great."
Jefferson had enjoyed playing in front of riled-up home crowds while Utah raced out to a 27-13 record in his first season in Utah, but some of the energy had been eradicated from the place by the time Harris and Favors joined the Jazz in late February.
Losing Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan to an unexpected mid-season resignation, seeing beloved team star Deron Williams get traded away and experiencing more losses than expected had dulled the usual roar inside the arena and around Jazz Nation when the New Jersey transplants arrived in Utah.
None of the three had ever experienced a playoff game here.
Knowing that, O'Connor seized the opportunity to tell them, "Look at this. This is the last game of a team that's not making the playoffs, and we beat Denver in what people would consider a non-relevant game.
"Look at this place. Wait 'til we're good. Can you imagine what it's going to be like?"
Because of what multiple players described as a "roller-coaster" season — or a zebra year, according to Andre Kirilenko (you'll have to ask the Russian what that means) — the Jazz packed up the belongings of their lockers on Thursday morning.
Players had their exit interviews with O'Connor and Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin.
They answered oodles of media questions.
And then, instead of going to the playoffs, they left for ... Ukraine, Turkey, southern France, New York, Miami, Indiana, Kentucky and wherever else NBA players go in the offseason.
But to a player, the image of returning next season to vastly improve on this disappointing and dismal 39-43 campaign and get the franchise back into the playoffs was on their minds as they boxed up personal belongings and headed to the offseason.
"Everybody wish that we had more basketball to play. It's not a good feeling," Jefferson said. "I've been going home in April for six years. ... It's not a feeling that guys want to get used to."
This is the first time Paul Millsap has ever ended the season without participating in the playoffs, and he told O'Connor, "I hate this feeling."
Like the rest of his teammates, Millsap enters this earlier-than-expected offseason dejected but determined.
Winning three of their last five games — with road wins over the Lakers and Hornets — gave the Jazz something to feel positive about on the way out.
Rookies Gordon Hayward, who ended the season with a career-high 34 points, Favors and Jeremy Evans showed enough oomph and talent to get fans and the team giddy about their future.
The organization and its players are also high on the key returning veteran players: Big Al, Millsap and Harris. If Raja Bell finds his shot over the summer and Mehmet Okur rediscovers his health after a brutal injury-plagued year, the Jazz have additional pieces returning that could help get things back on track.
On top of that, the Jazz have two lottery picks — one thanks to the D-Will deal which landed Utah a high pick from New Jersey; the other thanks to the team's own struggles. The franchise is hopeful about that rare opportunity to snatch two premier picks.
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