Clinched: After season-long struggle, Utah Jazz secure spot in playoffs
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Read more: Utah Jazz vs. Phoenix Suns: Instant analysis
Read more: Utah Jazz vs. Phoenix Suns: Report card
SALT LAKE CITY — Moments before a confetti blizzard filled EnergySolutions Arena and prior to Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap embracing each other at midcourt after the buzzer, the raucous and postseason-hungry crowd of 19,911 chanted "Playoffs! Playoffs! Playoffs!"
It was a simple but oh-so-satisfying chant that aptly summed up the night for the Utah Jazz.
The playoff drought — longer for some members of the Jazz than others — is over.
After a postseason off, the Jazz will be back in the NBA's Big Dance once again after eliminating the Phoenix Suns in a tense and thrilling 100-88 victory Tuesday night at EnergySolutions Arena.
"You know, it's a credit to these guys," Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said.
And from these guys, Corbin was referring to everybody from his coaching staff that helped him build a bridge from Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan's era to his own, to the 15 Jazz players who helped the franchise secure its 25th playoff berth in 29 years.
Even when others doubted — and many did, considering the absences of Sloan and star Deron Williams — the group inside the Jazz locker room didn't stop believing.
"The guys stayed together. It's a tremendous achievement for a group of guys that laid it out there every night," Corbin said. "Whatever happened, good or bad, they stayed together. That's the most rewarding thing to see them be rewarded for all the hard work they put in."
It all came together perfectly during this clinching play-in contest.
Earlier Tuesday, center Al Jefferson admitted, "It's the biggest game of my life." Hours later, he played like he meant it, especially late when he scored eight consecutive points to almost single-handedly put the Suns away and punch the Jazz's playoff ticket.
Jefferson ended up with 18 points, 16 rebounds and his first trip to the playoffs since his rookie season with Boston in 2005.
Along with Big Al, there was no shortage of heroes for the Jazz on this monumental night when critics had to have been turned into believers.
Utah's Big Three had perhaps its best outing together, with the trio each tallying double-doubles. Paul Millsap led the Jazz with 26 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, and Derrick Favors came off the bench to total a much-needed 13 points and 11 rebounds. Favors also made a huge defensive impact, blocking five shots and wreaking havoc on Phoenix's offense.
"We've been fighting all year," Millsap said. "We went out there and fought and we're going back to the playoffs, and thank God for it. We worked hard for it."
With the exciting win — which featured a 26-12 Utah run to finish it off — the Jazz improved to 35-30. Utah concludes its regular season at home Thursday against Portland. That game could end up being important if Denver (36-28) loses its next two games, because Utah holds the tiebreaker and could finish with the No. 7 seed.
Otherwise, it appears the Jazz will be headed to San Antonio to take on the Western Conference-leading Spurs.
At this point, it doesn't matter who the Jazz play. They're just floating that they'll be extending their season past the compressed 66-game lockout schedule.
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