SALT LAKE CITY — Late Friday night, things changed dramatically in the Western Conference's intriguing race for the final playoff spot.
Not because the Utah Jazz survived the Minnesota Timberwolves, 107-100, thanks to Al Jefferson's monstrous night, which included 40 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and a whole lot of cheers.
And not because the Los Angeles Lakers eked past the Golden State Warriors an hour and a half later, either.
It was the news that broke following that Lakers' game that changes the complexion of the 2013 playoff push.
Kobe Bryant's Achilles heel ruptured during Los Angeles' win, forcing him to get season-ending surgery Saturday.
The Lakers still have two All-Star big men in Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, but losing their heart and soul — and one of the greatest players in NBA history — will make it all the more challenging for L.A. to beat the Spurs today and the Rockets on Wednesday.
Jazz point guard Mo Williams made it clear on Twitter that he's more concerned about Bryant than he is about a competitive advantage the superstar's absence might give Utah.
"Much respect for @kobebryant. Never want to see that happen to nobody especially in a race we have going on," Williams wrote. "Smh (shaking my head) its bigger than basketball. #stayupmamba."
The Jazz practice Sunday morning before flying to Minnesota for Monday's rematch.
But Utah has rooting interest in Sunday night's game between the Kobe-less Lakers and the Spurs at Staples Center.
To qualify for the postseason, Utah needs at least one of L.A.'s remaining games to be a Laker loss — and both if the Jazz fall in Minnesota or Memphis. The Lakers (43-37) own a one-game advantage over the Jazz (42-38), but Utah holds the tiebreaker thanks to its 2-1 season-series win.
The Jazz have to hope San Antonio remains interested in trying to secure the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and doesn't rest all of its stars, which the franchise has a history of doing. The Spurs (58-21) currently trail Oklahoma City (59-21) by a half-game for that top spot. A San Antonio win tonight would open a door for the Jazz, who could then make the playoffs by simply beating the T-Wolves and Grizzlies.
Simply? Well, maybe not. Utah has a 12-27 record away from home, although the Jazz are on a two-game road winning streak, including last Sunday's impressive win at Golden State.
Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin gave his team Saturday off, but he continues to preach about how important it is for his players to remain focused on their games. They like their chances of extending their season if they keep winning. Even if that doesn't happen, the Jazz want to finish strong simply to go out on a positive note for an up-and-down season.
Either way, Corbin is enjoying how his team has played motivated basketball the past few weeks while winning eight of 10 games.
The Jazz have had to rally together after suffering through various rough stretches, including significant injuries of their own. Utah has had 160-plus health-related absences this season, including a 32-game rehab for Williams' surgically repaired thumb and a 10-game span without Gordon Hayward (shoulder).
Despite the struggles, the Jazz are in the hunt for that final playoff spot.
"I think the experiences that we've had all year kind of feeds into the sense of urgency. The importance of each and every game helps us," Corbin said. "This group of guys when we've been down, they continued to work and work and work, and you have a chance to figure things out because of that.
"The character of this group has allowed us to work our way out of some tough situations. We're still in the fight."
Following his career-high-tying night, Jefferson said the Jazz are only focused on ending this season the right way. The pressure of the moment is helping to fuel their competitive fire.
"This is our time right now," he said. "If we don't do it right now it's not going to be done. We've just got to be ready to play."
That said, you can bet they'll be tuned in to the Lakers-Spurs game somewhere in Minneapolis.
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