SALT LAKE CITY — One bitter season had a pretty sweet ending for the Utah Jazz.
Playoffs won't be included in this 2010-11 campaign, but the Jazz ended a tumultuous year celebrating a fun 107-103 victory over Denver.
Players smiled, confetti streamed down, music pumped through EnergySolutions Arena and fans cheered as the team wrapped up the season on a positive note, having won two straight and three of their last five games.
It certainly didn't make up for most of the season's last half when they lost 30 of 42 games, including skids that lasted five, six and eight games sans victories.
Truth be told, the Jazz would even take another postseason dismissal from the Lakers over this.
But this down-to-the-wire win — featuring a career-best 34 points in Gordon Hayward's rookie finale — gave the Jazz and their fans something to feel good about heading into what could be a very long spring/summer (maybe even fall/winter?) without organized NBA basketball.
"It's kind of a roller coaster. ... There's been ups and downs," Hayward said of the Jazz's 39-43 season, which saw them lose their Hall of Fame coach, their All-Star point guard and leader, and become the first team in NBA history to not make the playoffs after having a record as good as 27-13 at the midway point.
"This was definitely a high," he added. "However, it sucks that our season ends and we're not in the playoffs. That's ultimately what you want to do. It's good, I think, to go into the offseason on this note — gives you some confidence, some motivation in the offseason."
The way Hayward ended the season gave Jazz fans a reason to be excited about the future. He increased his NBA scoring high three times in the past week-and-a-half from 18 to 19 to 22 (right, Kobe?) to 34 Wednesday on 12-for-17 shooting.
The 21-year-old shooting guard scored 14 points in the fourth quarter, including four clutch free throws in the final 1:08 to help the Jazz finish with a win over their playoff-bound rivals.
"It's a good way to end it," said Jazz point guard Devin Harris, who added 21 points and six assists. "We like to finish this season strong, (and) it's a good stepping stone for us next season."
That's also how center Al Jefferson looked at the victory, which the Jazz picked up while playing just eight players due to injuries.
"It's kind of like a bittersweet thing," Big Al said. "You know, it sucks 'cause the season over and no more basketball for right now. But it's good 'cause we can start working on what we need to, to get ready for next season. I'm just really looking forward for this training camp coming up."
Who knows when or if that will happen, however, because of the looming lockout situation that could see the owners shut down the league's operations when the current collective bargaining agreement expires on June 30.
But the focus for the Jazz on this night wasn't to bemoan past failures or worry about future problems. They were thrilled to give the 19,051 in attendance on Fan Appreciation Night something to cheer for one last time in this season that often lacked that.
As a token of gratitude to fans who are suffering through just the fourth non-playoff season in 28 years, players and coaches stayed on the court for several minutes after the game. Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin thanked the crowd for its support and promised things would improve, and the team tossed autographed paraphernalia into the stands to screaming supporters who stuck with them through this bittersweet end.
"The most encouraging thing about it is, you know, we won the game (and) the tremendous support from our fans," Corbin said. "We're finishing this season off not going to the playoffs, and the ovation they gave the guys at the end was tremendous and we really appreciate what they give us."
All five Jazz starters ended up hitting double figures in scoring, led by Hayward, Harris, Jefferson's 17 points, 10 rebounds and a dozen points from Paul Millsap and rookie Derrick Favors.
The crowd was also treated to a 14-point outburst by Nuggets' starter-for-the-night Kosta Koufos, who was traded to Denver this season after being traded to Minnesota from Utah last summer in the Jefferson deal.
Wilson Chandler topped Denver with 27 points. The Nuggets also played only eight guys with the playoffs coming and its No. 5 seed secured.
While Jazz players head off to various sunny locales and hometowns after today's locker cleanout and exit interviews with management, the Nuggets (50-32) will begin the playoffs against Northwest Division champion Oklahoma City.
NOTES: C.J. Miles (knee) missed the finale along with fellow injured Jazz players Andrei Kirilenko (knee), Raja Bell (foot), Ronnie Price (leg), Kyrylo Fesenko (thumb) and Mehmet Okur (back). ... Corbin finished his rookie head-coaching stint with an 8-20 record. ... Denver guard Ty Lawson left the game with a left sprained ankle, but it isn't considered to be serious.
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