SALT LAKE CITY – Perhaps it was not surprising when Al Jefferson collapsed in the backcourt with 1:29 left in Wednesday’s game with Orlando, holding his lower back before being helped off the court.
After all, Jefferson had carried the Utah Jazz on his back all night in leading his team to an 87-81 victory over the Magic. Big Al finished with 31 points and 15 rebounds as the Jazz avoided another fourth-quarter collapse and held on to win, evening their season record at 10-10.
Although Jefferson had to be assisted to the locker room and wasn’t available to the media until nearly an hour after the end of the game, he assured everyone he’ll be back for Friday night’s game against Toronto.
“I don't miss games,’’ he said. “I'll be ready to play Friday. (Unless) I just can't walk, I don't miss too many games if I can help.’’
It was unclear whether Jefferson was injured by contact going for a rebound after a missed shot by J.J. Redick. Jefferson said he didn’t know if he landed wrong and “came down awkward’’ or got hit in the back. “I really don’t know,’’ he said.
All everyone else knew was that without Jefferson, the Jazz may have suffered their second straight home loss after winning their first six.
With no Dwight Howard to contend with for the Magic, the Jazz went inside to Jefferson and Paul Millsap all night against unheralded inside men Nikola Vucevic and Glen Davis. It paid dividends as Millsap scored 22 points to go with Jefferson’s 31, giving the pair well over half of Utah’s points.
“He was going very well,’’ Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said of Jefferson. “When he’s getting the ball in his spots and making some perimeter shots, you know what he’s going to do in one-on-one situations in the post. When he’s going like he was tonight, he’s pretty difficult to deal with.’’
“When you get a guy like him rolling, he is tough to stop,’’ added Magic coach Jacque Vaughn.
As the fourth quarter began, the Magic appeared to have the Jazz right where they wanted them, even though they were trailing 68-57. The Magic had outscored the Lakers and the Warriors in two road victories earlier this week by a total of 22 points in the fourth quarter, while the Jazz had blown a 10-point lead at the start of the fourth against the Clippers just two nights earlier.
The Magic did indeed come back to take a brief lead over the Jazz late in the fourth quarter, grabbing their first advantage since the opening minutes when Davis scored inside off a nice feed from J.J. Redick to make it 79-78 with 3:25 left.
At the other end, it made sense for the Jazz to go inside as they had all night, but instead Randy Foye, who was 0-for-5 on the night at the time, rose up for a 3-pointer from the right angle. Everyone might have covered their eyes, but Foye’s shot hit nothing but net to put the Jazz ahead for good at the 3:11 mark.
“I was upset with myself and felt ‘this is my job,’’’ Foye said. “I don’t look at it as losing confidence, but I look at it as I need to stay aggressive.’’
Corbin called Foye’s basket “huge” and said, “we kinda took off from there.’’
After a miss by Davis from 17 feet, Jefferson took over. First he scored on his patented right-handed jump hook in the lane over Vucevic. Then following a pair of free throws by Nelson, the Jazz isolated Jefferson on the left side again. This time, rather than drive across the lane, he stopped and popped a 17-footer from the left angle to make it 85-81 with 1:51 left.
On the next trip down after a bad miss by Redick, Jefferson came up hurting, holding his left lower back.
He walked a few steps then lay down on the court for a couple of minutes before being taken to the locker room.
When he finally emerged at his locker with a wrap around his back, he talked about the injury.
A few minutes earlier DeMarre Carroll had given an indication of how serious Jefferson’s injury might be. Carroll said if Jefferson was his usual joking self, he’d be OK, but if he wasn’t talking he might be too injured to play later this week.
It should be the former, considering some things Jefferson said afterward.
He had a Mr. T reference about “getting a shot or something’’ and talked about his huge bed that got a lot of attention before the season began.
“That's the reason I bought the $25,000 bed, because I was sleeping on a soft bed,’’ he said. “I went to go to see this chiropractor who makes beds and he made it just for my back. That's why I'm not really too concerned about it.’’
Besides Jefferson and Millsap, the Jazz had no one else in double figures as Mo Williams finished with nine points and seven assists, while Marvin Williams, coming back from a concussion that forced him to miss three games, scored eight. Foye and Gordon Hayward combined to shoot a miserable 1 of 13 from the 2-guard spot, but Foye’s one make was big.
Orlando was led by Davis with 18, Jameer Davis with 17 and Arron Afflalo with 16. Vucevic scored only six but pulled down 16 rebounds, while Davis had 12 boards.
After playing host to the Raptors on Friday, the Jazz head to Los Angeles for a Sunday night game against the Lakers.