Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY —
Next comes the locker clean-out, which always happens on the last day of class.
The Utah Jazz were expelled from the playoffs on Monday, victims of head schoolmaster coach Gregg Popovich and his San Antonio Spurs. So now they know. They aren't yet on the honor roll. The Spurs are A students, the kind who sit up front and answer all the questions. The Jazz are the quiet kid in the back, brimming with potential but not bold enough to speak up.
The season ended for the Jazz on Monday with an expected 87-81 loss to the Spurs. True to form, the Jazz played hard — their most appealing quality — mounting a last-ditch rally that cut a 21-point lead to just four, inside the final minute. It wasn't until Manu Ginobili's layup with 19 seconds remaining that the outcome became clear.
The Jazz had neither enough time nor enough experience to move on.
The outcome completed a four-game Spurs sweep. The Jazz were in the playoffs long enough to pull off their warm-ups, but barely. Now, it's on to their summer business, which surely will include finding someone – anyone – who can shoot. They made an awful 38 percent from the field and missed 31 free throws in the post season.
For a team picked by many to finish near the bottom in the standings, and miss the playoffs for a second straight year, this season was a measurable success. They won their final five games to qualify for the post season. Although they were outscored by an average of 16 points in the playoffs, they emerged wiser than when their season began in December.
That doesn't entirely excuse them from blanking in the playoffs. They were dominated from the first tip to the last horn. They could have enhanced their image and confidence by even a single win. But the Spurs, in a hurry to finish the first-round series and rest for the next one, weren't in a giving mood.
"It's a frustrating loss, but it was learning experience," Jazz center Al Jefferson said. "We went out fighting. We fought all the way to the end. So It's a learning experience. We learned a lot from this series. We played against a great team. Just go home, watch all the playoffs and try to learn and watch, see what it takes to get to the next level."
In some ways, this was one of the more memorable Jazz teams, not unlike those of the early 1980s. It, too, is just starting to find itself. Whether Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Jeremy Evans, Alec Burks and Gordon Hayward become stars is an open-ended question. But two things are clear. First, the Jazz have more athleticism and versatility than older Jazz teams ever had. Second, they aren't yet ready for prime time.
Despite being a 36-30 team, the Jazz did entertain. They played games with one, two, three and four overtimes, winning four and losing three. Coach Ty Corbin experimented with his lineup, sent Raja Bell home from a road trip after the two clashed, and adapted without C.J. Miles and Earl Watson in the post season. They beat playoff teams Dallas, the L.A. Lakers, Memphis and Philadelphia, yet lost to lowly teams such as Sacramento, Toronto, New Orleans and Minnesota.
By the time it got to May, it became obvious the youngish Jazz were over-matched and under-experienced.
Nevertheless, it wasn't until Paul Millsap bobbled the ball to the Spurs — setting up Ginobili's layup — that the outcome became irreversible.
"Looking at it from the beginning of the game, I thought that our guys showed a lot of class, as they have done all year — just continued to fight," Corbin said. "Our backs were up against the wall right from the beginning. ... If we win, lose or draw, we are going to give everything we have."
What they had just wasn't enough when the lights got hot.
They were good enough to make the cut, but not yet ready to make the leap.
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