MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Al Jefferson turned 28 years old 3 1/2 months ago. His big day was Jan. 4, to be precise.
While his playoff-hungry team is in full better-late-than-never mode, the Utah Jazz center would happily accept a belated offering from an old friend.
"It's all about Houston," Jefferson said. "I guess I need to try to get in touch with (Rockets coach) Kevin McHale and tell him to go and handle that for me, give me a late birthday present."
That present from the man who coached him at Minnesota would be a victory by the Rockets over the Lakers late Wednesday night at Staples Center.
But before you correct Jefferson, yes, he does realize that it really isn't all about Houston.
In order for that Rockets-Lakers game to be relevant for Utah's playoff fate, Big Al and his Utah teammates have to get some winning work done in Memphis.
The Jazz (43-38) trail the Lakers (44-37) by one game in the chase for the final postseason berth in the Western Conference. For the Jazz to make the playoffs for the 26th time in the past 30 years, two things must happen: Utah has to win and the Lakers must lose.
Convenient for NBA fans, those two games just so happen to be an ESPN season-finale doubleheader. Utah and Memphis tip off at 6 p.m. followed by the Rockets-Lakers showdown at 8:30 p.m.
Inconvenient for the Jazz, they'll be 34,000 feet above the middle of the United States flying home from Graceland while Houston and L.A. play their game in Tinsel Town.
"We've got one left and we need some help," Jazz point guard Mo Williams said. "We just got to go out and take care of our business and sit back and get some good news on the plane."
Because the Jazz beat the Lakers in two of three meetings this season — the Kobe Bryant version of the Lakers, mind you — Utah owns the tiebreaker and would be pitted against No. 1 seed Oklahoma City in the first round if that two-fold, good-news scenario plays out.
"I love my chances. I think we're playing well right now, playing well enough to win on the road," Jefferson said. "Memphis is a good team, but I love my chances going in. We've just got to take care of our business and everything else will work itself out."
Jefferson isn't the only one who (jokingly) is asking for favors.
Lakers big man Pau Gasol contacted Memphis standout center Marc Gasol and asked his younger brother for some long-distance help.
"I told him to please go out there and compete and try to win the game," Pau told the Los Angeles Times. "He said, 'We'll see,' because (Monday) night they played the starters 24 minutes (in a win at Dallas). They probably play the same the next game."
Wednesday's game isn't as important for Memphis to win as the Jazz, but the Grizzlies do have something play for. If the Clippers lose and Memphis wins, Tennessee's team would end up earning home-court advantage against Chris Paul's club.
Giving the Jazz a bit of hope, Houston also has something on the line. The Rockets would slip to the No. 8 position out West with a loss to the Lakers, so it'd be advantageous for Houston to win and avoid that dreaded opening-round pitting against Oklahoma City.
If nothing else, a Jazz win would create some late-night sports drama and make the NBA regular season meaningful to the final minute.
"It's very exciting to be put in (this) situation. We know we've got to win," Jazz power forward Paul Millsap said. "No matter what happens, we've got to win the game. We're not out of this thing. We're still in it. Hopefully, we continue to fight and get in it."
The Jazz were pounded the last time they visited Memphis, falling 99-86 on Dec. 15. But Utah did defeat the Grizzlies 90-84 in the teams' last game at EnergySolutions Arena in mid-March.
This actually resembles a pitting of playoff teams.
Memphis has picked up wins in eight of its last 10 outings after a rough spell in March.
Utah comes into this one with momentum, having won nine of 11 games overall and with a season-high three consecutive road victories.
"We feel like we're a playoff team," Millsap said ahead of what could be his final game in a Jazz uniform after seven seasons. "We feel like we've been in the playoffs these past few weeks with these games. Hopefully, it pays off and we can get there."
Whether or not things play out to their liking, the Jazz have made a somewhat valiant effort to finish the season strong after completely falling apart for about a month during a bleak 3-12 stretch following the All-Star break.
That might not completely satisfy some fans bitter about the way Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin handled his rotations or developed the younger players, but it might sweeten the bitterness of a disappointing season a little bit for others.
Including the Jazz.
"Talk about this group of guys, the character that they have. There was no quit in this group," Corbin said. "The guys just continued to work and put ourselves in a position to get back when we were struggling there.
"You struggle in NBA seasons at times," he continued. "You don't play your best basketball for an entire season. You'd love to, but we didn't. The guys continued to work and stay focused and were able to get back (to) having a chance of making the playoffs."
If the Jazz don't make the postseason cut, they'd be the winningest team in franchise history to miss out on the playoffs. With 43 victories going into tonight's tilt, they've already surpassed the 42-40 2003-04 squad that just missed out on extending its season the year after John Stockton and Karl Malone moved on.
Though their eye remains focused on the 2013 playoff prize, the Jazz take pride in bouncing back from that midseason lull during which they fell two games below .500 and appeared to be ready for the offseason.
"Just being professional, really. Just taking care of our business," Jefferson said. "We just for some reason woke up and started playing well on the defensive end and that's all that mattered."
Mo Williams believes his team deserves credit for pulling back together despite the fact that the Jazz have nine free-agents-to-be — 10 if Marvin Williams doesn't take his player option — and dealt with a variety of injuries, including his 32-game absence for thumb surgery.
Sure, the Jazz would obviously like to have punched their playoff ticket by now, but they're happy to still be playing a game with postseason implications in mid-April — 81 games and 6 1/2 months after they began training camp.
"It's crazy. It's fun, though, to have every game count like that and especially down the stretch your last 15 or so games. It really counts," Mo Williams said. "I think it's shown a lot as a team who we are. It makes you become a selfless person. I think it's all about one goal — getting to the playoffs.
"I think it showed the character of this team," he added, "because of the situation we are in with a lot of players that we do have that's in a situation this summer. It's just showed how together this team is."
Now they have one more chance to come together.14 comments on this story
If they do, they could get some playoffs with those peanuts and pretzels on the 1,500-mile flight home.
If they don't, well, Jefferson might prefer some other late birthday present from his old coach.