Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Jeremy Evans must've felt like he was having a flashback from this year's NBA Slam Dunk Contest.
The league's reigning dunk champion was throwing 'em down left and right, much to the delight of an appreciative EnergySolutions Arena crowd, on the way to his first career double-double.
Rookie guard Alec Burks, scoring at nearly a point-a-minute pace, had an NBA career-best 18 points. Utah's other prized rookie, Enes Kanter, played a career-high 33 minutes and wound up with a double-double of his own — 12 points and 10 rebounds — for his efforts.
Veterans Josh Howard and Raja Bell, who each missed more than a month of the season with knee injuries that required surgery, got a chance to knock off all the rust they might've accumulated by playing their most extensive minutes since mid-March.
Oh, and, by the way, the Jazz won the game, too.
In a somewhat meaningless regular-season finale following several weeks of tension-filled nail-biters, the Jazz turned back the Portland Trail Blazers 96-94 on Thursday night at EnergySolutions Arena.
"It was good to get out there, get loose a little bit and let the young guys play and pull the game out," said Utah center Al Jefferson, the team's top scorer and rebounder, who played most of the first quarter and then turned the rest of the night over to the Jazz reserves.
Indeed, with Paul Millsap, their second-leading scorer and rebounder, sitting out Thursday's contest to rest a groin injury while the remainder of their customary starters spent most of the night on the bench, the Jazz got precisely what the doctor ordered — a regular-season ending victory and some much-needed rest for their key personnel — in preparation for Sunday's playoff-series opener against San Antonio.
"We knew it was going to be a little bit of a relaxed atmosphere out there," said Utah coach Tyrone Corbin, "but we wanted to make sure that we played to get better and not to embarrass anybody and not to clown around. And I thought for the most part we did that."
Utah (36-30), which won its last five games to nail down the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference playoffs, will face the top-seeded Spurs in Game 1 of the best-of-seven series at 11 a.m. MDT at the AT&T Center. The game will be televised by ESPN.
Game 2 isn't until Wednesday evening before the Jazz return home to host Games 3 and 4 of the first-round series on Saturday and Monday, May 5 and 7.
Along with Burks' team-leading 18 points and Kanter's strong double-double night, Derrick Favors finished with 15 points and five rebounds, and Howard had 12 points and six boards.
But Evans stole the show. Thanks to several eye-popping dunks, he had a season-high 13 points to go along with a career-best 10 rebounds, as well as three blocked shots and three steals.
"Jeremy had some highlight-reels that were pretty cool to watch," said second-year guard Gordon Hayward, who played just seven minutes. "He showed why he's the slam-dunk champ. Any time he gets in the game, he always makes things happen. He was doing other things to help the team win besides the dunks."
The soft-spoken Evans, who has averaged less than seven minutes per game, got to play 28 minutes on Thursday and energized his team and the fans with his performance.
"I always want to go in the game and have fun," Evans said. "That's why I play. I always say I have a job that you love doing, and going out there and playing ball — that's what I love doing … getting the fans involved and just having fun.
"Maybe the veteran guys were a little more relaxed, but we're coming in just like any other game. Coach told us we may play minutes so get ready, and we don't want to mess that up."
For Portland, which finished a disappointing season at 28-38, J.J. Hickson had a game-high 20 points along with nine rebounds, Jonny Flynn finished with 18 points and 11 assists, and Nolan Smith added 16 points and seven assists.
Former Jazzman Wesley Matthews wound up with 14 points on 4-of-18 shooting, and it certainly looked like he might've been fouled on a last-second 3-pointer, but got no call.
"Credit the Jazz," Matthews said. "They played well. They played hard. The reserve guys came out and played with a lot of energy."
And they'll be hoping for more of the same, from their bench and especially from the starters, when the Jazz open postseason play Sunday against the four-time NBA champion Spurs.
Jazz vs. Spurs
Best of seven
Game 1 – Sun April 29 Utah at San Antonio 11 a.m. ESPN
Game 2 – Wed May 2 Utah at San Antonio 5 p.m. TNT
Game 3 – Sat May 5 San Antonio at Utah 8 p.m. TNT
Game 4 – Mon May 7 San Antonio at Utah TBD TBD TBD
Game 5 * Wed May 9 Utah at San Antonio TBD TBD TBD
Game 6 * Fri May 11 San Antonio at Utah TBD TBD TBD
Game 7 * Sun May 13 Utah at San Antonio TBD TBD TBD
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