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Brad Rock: Utah Jazz players moving past just being kids with big win

Published: Wednesday, April 25 2012 12:41 a.m. MDT

Utah Jazz guard Gordon Hayward (20) is fouled by Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash (13) on a break away to the hoop as the Utah Jazz and the Phoenix Suns play Tuesday, April 24, 2012 in Energy Solutions arena.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — So maybe people over-celebrated a little. It was, after all, just two mid-level teams, playing for the last playoff spot.

It's been only two years since the Jazz were in the postseason.

Still, it's been considerably longer since fans appreciated it so much, and a Jazz team cared this much.

The crowd chanted "Playoffs! Playoffs!" as the final seconds ticked away in Tuesday's 100-88 win over Phoenix.

"Playoff tickets are on sale RIGHT NOW!" bellowed public address announcer Dan Roberts.

Meanwhile, the Jazz are growing up RIGHT NOW.

After failing to make the playoffs last year, the Jazz are back in their customary spot — which is to say still playing after the season. Back in the '90s, they did this in their sleep. Fighting for the last spot was a semi-failure. Nowadays, just making the playoffs is — as the movie trailers grandly proclaim — "a triumph of the human spirit."

Kids. They can find the darndest things to enjoy. Enes Kanter looked like it was his birthday. Same with Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors. Veteran Devin Harris emotionally hugged coach Ty Corbin. Even the "old" guys like 27-year-old Al Jefferson fought back the emotion.

That's understandable. Eight years in the league and Jefferson hasn't paid many visits to Respectville. Just one previous playoff appearance. But after scoring eight straight points to pull the Jazz ahead for good, he's not just Big Al the scorer, he's Big Al the possible postseason leader. It's not just Gordon Hayward, the promising young player, it's Hayward the veteran. As for playoff intensity, now they can all enjoy the feel. Asked whether this team was more excited than those that routinely make the playoffs, Harris said, "I would think so. It's just a young group not expected to do anything."

Truthfully, the Jazz have already had a bit of a playoff taste. Tuesday's game had all the earmarks of a big contest. Win, and the Jazz made the playoffs, lose and it would partially be up to someone else to get them in.

It was the sort of game that reverberates far beyond its purpose. It tells teams whether they're going places.

So the Jazz just went ahead and won.

Some experts picked the Jazz to finish last in the Western Conference. Yet this is a team that has played seven overtime games, including a triple-overtime against Dallas, and a quadruple against Atlanta. It's gaining experience fast.

When you add up all the extra minutes, the Jazz have already played an extra game-and-a-half this season.

One question: Do those guys paid time-and-a-half for overtime?

If there were any doubts about what the game meant to the crowd, as well as the Jazz, that was decided long before tipoff. The building was full, the crowd in a postseason kind of mood. In fact, it was on its feet an the last possession of just the first quarter, roaring its approval. As the night slipped onward, the crowd cheered the dancers. It cheered Bear. It applauded everything, including the concessionaires.

But the temperature really rose when, after an 8-0 Suns run to start the second quarter, the Jazz fashioned one of their own. Back-to-back running dunk attempts by rookies Kanter and Alec Burks were interrupted by hard fouls, but that didn't discourage the crowd.

It was the thought that counted.

Then the Jazz rolled into defensive mode, with Favors blocking five shots in the first half alone. Someone would go up for an inside shot and Favors would return to sender.

Much of the Jazz's 49-42 advantage was fashioned on eight first-half blocks and six steals. They went ahead by 10 points in the third quarter, but that was quickly pared to three. The Suns retook the lead early in the fourth.

By then, Jefferson had seen enough and went on his late scoring tear.

So it's on to the playoffs, this weekend, the kids not so kiddish anymore.

"We're glad to be there, but we're not just going into the playoffs to lose," Harris said.

One game better, but a world ahead.

email: rock@desnews.com

Twitter: therockmonster

Facebook: rockmonsterunplugged

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