SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz's locker room was, as you might expect, a pretty happy place Wednesday night.
Players were smiling in the Rose Garden. They were eagerly answering reporters' questions about red-hot shooting, postseason positioning and their overall effort. They were laughing and joking with each other.
But another attitude prevailed inside of that pleasant place.
With a week to go in the season, the Jazz have fought, scraped and overcome obstacles to get themselves into a sweet position in which their own play will determine their fate.
In the next seven days, it doesn't matter what fellow postseason wannabes Phoenix and Houston do.
If the Jazz win their next three games — all at home — against the Magic, Suns and Blazers, they'll earn a playoff spot. It's that simple. If Utah can up its current record of 33-30 to 36-30 in games in which it will be favored, second-year coach Tyrone Corbin and crew will be pitted against either San Antonio or Oklahoma City for a first-round matchup.
If they lose even one of their next three contests, however, they could be lottery-bound.
But they're in a position not many thought they would be coming into this condensed season, which was supposed to be a rebuilding bridge to the future.
That's why Wednesday's post-game celebration of a blowout win over Portland that helped vault the Jazz into the enviable No. 8 spot in the Western Conference was a bit restrained.
After sitting out last year, the Jazz want to be in the playoffs again next weekend.
And there's work to be done to get there.
"It's not about being in with three games to go. It's about being in when the last buzzer goes off at the last game," Jazz center Al Jefferson said. "So you know it's there for us. We just got to continue to take care of business. We've got three games left and we've got to win all three of them. That's what we've got to do."
Let that soak in for a moment.
Just a year after the organization seemed to be headed to lottery limbo for who knew how long — following the resignation of Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan, the trading of star Deron Williams and the historically bad second-half collapse — this franchise is only three wins away from securing its 25th trip to the playoffs since 1984.
With a fairly new head coach.
And four contributors between 19 and 22 years old.
And some key veterans trying to prove they can produce for winning teams.
And despite losing four regulars to injuries.
The Jazz's resiliency this season is a testament to the culture of winning that has prevailed in this organization for the past three decades. Players, coaches and personnel have continued to bounce back as if they're personally taking to heart the quote from late owner Larry H. Miller that is visible at the entryway of the locker room that reads:
"Nobody laid down. Nobody quit. Nobody left anything in the locker room. It was all out there on the floor. … I've always said to our guys, 'I'll never ask you to win, but I will ask you to give us everything you've got.' "
With this Utah team — as in the past — that's not just a neat saying.
It's an attitude of determination — another witness that heart isn't measured by championships.
"Larry's not with us anymore," Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor said when the idea of tanking was recently brought up. "But I guarantee one thing, that's what he said, 'Play and then see what happens.' "
And the 2011-12 Jazz have.
"It's been tough at times. We've had some great successes at times, but it's been a good journey," said Corbin, who is 41-50 as Utah's bench boss since replacing Sloan in February 2011. "It's been a great learning road for all of us, not just for the players, but for ourselves, our coaching staff, in figuring out who we are, who we're trying to be and where we need to go.
"All the lessons have been great lessons for us to get now," he added, "and as we move forward we'll use those lessons."
Losses usually accompany the educational experiences in which the Jazz didn't smoothly execute or play energetic team defense.
Losing after overlooking a so-called lesser opponent — or at least not playing well — is another hard lesson the Jazz have learned the tough way this season on a few occasions and most recently in New Orleans (again).
That's why Wednesday's big win in Portland — 112-91 over a shell of a Blazers' squad — might have been a monumental step forward for this team that Corbin says continues to learn on the fly.
Instead of taking the win for granted, Utah went out and grabbed it.
That's what Corbin and players say they have to do with the remaining schedule.
"It's satisfying. We're not settling for this," Jefferson said. "Three hard games coming up, so it's good to be in this position. It's great. Out of all the things that we've been through (and) injuries. … The key is to go in there and just finish the season off right."
The best part: They get to try to do it in front of 19,911 supportive and screaming fans at EnergySolutions Arena, where they have a stellar 22-8 record.
This final playoff push begins Saturday versus Orlando.
"We've got three games at home, (where) we play well," Jazz point guard Devin Harris said. "We put ourselves in a nice position, but we've still got to go out and play the games."
And, just to be safe, win them all.
"We're in the mix," Corbin said, "and we just have to take care of our business."4 comments on this story
You can imagine what the smiles and laughs in that locker room will be like if that happens.