By a quirk of the NBA master schedule, which was cast in print sometime last summer, the Utah Jazz met their first-round playoff foe - namely, the Golden State Warriors - to close out the regular season last night in the Salt Palace.
In their Playoff Preview, the Jazz beat the Warriors 111-95. But lest there be any jumping to conclusions that this meant anything, that the Jazz now have the Warriors cowering in a corner, consider that the Warriors left Mitch Richmond, their second-leading scorer, home in Oakland, ostensibly because of a bad back; that the Jazz left Karl Malone on the end of their bench in street clothes, nursing his ankle; and that the reserves on both teams ended up playing more minutes than the regulars.Both Steve Alford (17) and Eric Leckner (21) had career-high points.
It was a night to not share any secrets.
Nothing could be cloudier than a Jazz-Warriors first-round best-of-five series, which will open next Thursday in the Salt Palace.
Like with last night's game, nobody's sayin' nothin'.
The truth is probably this: The Warriors are happy for this turn of events, and the Jazz aren't, because they'd have rather opened the playoffs against Denver or Houston, teams they match strength-for-strength with better.
But of course neither Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan nor Warriors Coach Don Nelson is about to say that publicly. Neither was about to say that after last night's game.
"I've been saying all along, although nobody seems to believe me, that it doesn't matter who we play," said Nelson.
"There's no great advantage in playing anybody over anybody else," said Sloan.
Still, the Warriors went into a pretty good nosedive to slide in as the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference bracketing - to match up against the No. 2 seed Jazz. With a win at home Friday night against Denver, and a win last night against the Jazz, Golden State could have probably garnered the No. 6 seeding, qualifying to meet Phoenix in the first round.
But Phoenix has been this year's kryptonite to the Warriors. The Suns have beaten them four out of six times, and in the last two games beat them by a total of 48 points, including a 30-point loss in Oakland.
Sooooo, the Warriors managed to eke out a 139-121 loss to Denver Friday in Oakland, thereby handing the higher seeding to the Nuggets.
Meanwhile, the Jazz were watching with interest, and, one might suspect, rooting for Denver to slide into the seventh seed spot. For one thing, the Jazz have beaten the Nuggets two of their last three games and, besides that, Denver isn't a team that has improved by 23 games from last year to this, which is the case with the Warriors.
Despite the fact that Nelson says, "It will take a near miracle for us to beat the Jazz," the Warriors are obviously that most dangerous of playoff species: an underdog with not much to lose and a load of momentum.
Beyond that, they provide a contrast for the Jazz that most teams do not. They're quick and fast and small, and shoot well from the outside. The Jazz play a power game. This is a serve-and-volley game versus baseline matchup.
Not that you'd have known it last night.
"I certainly hope this bears no resemblance to what next Thursday's game will be like," said Nelson.
"This was more like an exhibition game," said Sloan. "I don't think people like to see this kind of basketball." He included himself in that category. "The last three games we've been involved in, I haven't enjoyed at all," he said. Such are the problems when you sew up your division title, your 50-win goal, and your playoff seeding with a week of the regular season yet to play.
To make the night memorable, the Jazz elongated the halftime ceremonies, during which they retired former Coach Frank Layden's jersey, a symbolic No. 1. Layden returned the compliment, telling the sellout crowd, "You know what? No. 1 is You!"
He went on to exclaim that Utah's fans are the greatest fans in the NBA, which was met with the largest cheer of the night. After that, the Jazz and the Warriors played the second half, such as it was - not showing each other anything more than absolutely necessary and letting Alford and Leckner show off while the showing off was good. The intense, playoff-type stuff, they're saving for Thursday. Last night was just to make the regular season official. As Layden would have put it, they had to do it, it's a league rule.