SAN ANTONIO — Entering the Western Conference's first-round series against San Antonio as heavy underdogs has a familiar feel to it for the Utah Jazz.
It's how they entered the 2011-12 season, too.
Many skeptics were convinced the Jazz would be mediocre at best.
Other observers thought the team that lost 20 of its final 28 games the previous year — and no longer employed Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan or All-Star point guard Deron Williams — would be flat-out bad.
Danger of being relegated to the D-League, if the NBA had that option, bad.
In that respect, this whole irregular season was the Year of the Underdog for the Jazz.
Between their happiness over proving pessimistic pundits wrong by making the playoffs and their desensitization to being overlooked, the Jazz could care less if nobody thinks they'll advance past the Spurs — or even make a series out of it.
"We wasn't even picked to get into the playoffs. I would say we are a big-time underdog," Jazz forward Paul Millsap said. "We wasn't picked to be in the playoffs, (but) we're here. Not picked to win a game, (and) we're going to see what happens."
If anybody knows how to overcome odds, it's the supposedly undersized Millsap. He's made a career out of making believers out of naysayers — from earning three consecutive rebounding titles at Louisiana Tech, to making himself into an All-Star-like player in the world's best league after being picked in the second round.
"When it happens so long, it becomes a habit," Millsap said of playing with a chip on his shoulder for being underappreciated. "So the best thing to do is embrace it. I'm just embracing it."
Millsap and the Jazz would love nothing more than to give a big ole bear hug to the challenge ahead of them today.
Not many will give them a chance in this 11 a.m. tipoff at AT&T Center against Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili & Co., but surprising San Antonio by snatching Game 1 would certainly catch the NBA's attention and put Utah in an unexpectedly good spot.
Don't believe they can do it?
Before penciling in a 4-0 Spurs sweep, consider the makeup up of this Jazz team and what it's overcome to get into this position.
Al Jefferson had a reputation of piling up big numbers for bad teams.
The careers of Jamaal Tinsley and Josh Howard were salvaged from the NBA's scrap pile.
DeMarre Carroll became a starter after being waived midseason by Denver.
New Jersey made it clear before Derrick Favors stepped on any of their courts last season that they wanted to trade him. Some wondered if Gordon Hayward was worthy of a top 10 pick.
Devin Harris endured trade rumors and criticism for being a shell of his 2009 All-Star self and for not running the Jazz offense as well as, say, Earl Watson, let alone John Stockton and Deron Williams.
Raja Bell has been lambasted for being past his prime. C.J. Miles battled consistency demons. Alec Burks wasn't Jimmer. Enes Kanter was questioned as a No. 3 pick. Blake Ahearn wasn't even playing basketball after his minor-league season ended a month ago.
Throw in a shortened training camp, a lack of hands-on offseason tutoring, late-season injuries to four contributors, inconsistency issues due to unfamiliarity and a rough road patch in the middle of the season, contributions from 15 different guys, and the Jazz had to surmount a big pile of problems to exceed expectations.
Oh yeah, and they did that under the tutelage of Tyrone Corbin, who replaced a Hall of Famer on the bench.
"I've always kind of been an underdog, so you kind of relish in the moment," Corbin said. "You can't quit. You certainly have to believe in yourself and we have to believe in ourselves as a group."
Because they did when no one else seemed to, here the Jazz are under the bright spotlight of the NBA playoffs — far quicker than many expected they'd return after one postseason off.
"(Corbin) took a team that no one would have ever thought would even finish 10th in the West, let alone making the playoffs. He got us here," Jefferson said. "I believe in him to take us even further."
While that sounds dandy, not many will give them a shot today against the former four-time champs. Even No. 8 Utah knows it's outmatched against the mighty No. 1 Spurs.
Still, the Jazz traveled to Texas for one purpose.
And it wasn't to visit the Alamo.
"We're looking to get two wins," Corbin said.
"This is a great moment, but now it's just time to go take care of business," Big Al said. "Our goal (was) to get to the playoffs, but now we're here we've got to set a new goal. It's time to just be focused and do the things that we have to do to prepare ourselves to go give San Antonio a tough series."
Added Burks, who's about get his first NBA playoff action: "My eyes are never big. I don't care who we're playing. That's the type of player I am. We played them four times this year (going 1-3). It's the same team ... just don't get caught up in the hype, don't get caught up in all the success they've had (and) just play our game."
Upsets of this nature aren't unheard of in the NBA playoffs. Heck, No. 8 Memphis stunned the top-seeded Spurs just last spring.
Underdog or not, the Jazz are proud that they're in the mix, which seemed farfetched after they fell to 15-18 in February after losing 11 of 14 contests.
But they bounced back and advanced while 14 NBA teams have already begun their vacations.
"That's where legends are born at — playoffs," Jefferson said. "It's the main stage. It's what we work hard for to get to."
Now the Jazz have a stone in their hands and are hoping to smack the giant square in the forehead.
"If we played the game on paper from the beginning of the year, we wouldn't be here. We're here now," Corbin said. "We want to lay it out there and play. We don't want to lay down and give them the game. We want to make them play against us and make them beat us, and we're going to try to beat them."
Added Corbin: "They may beat us, but we may beat them also."
Utah Jazz on the air
Western Conference playoffs
First round, best-of-seven
Utah Jazz at San Antonio Spurs
11 a.m. at AT&T Center, San Antonio
Radio: 1320 AM, 1600 AM,
98.7 FM Hope (and humor) for Jazz fans
Jazz beat writer Jody Genessy offers up a tongue-in-cheek Top 10 list of reasons why Utah has a shot against San Antonio online at Jazzland.blogs.deseretnews.com.
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