Utah Jazz: Postseason or offseason? It all comes down to one night
"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.
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.
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