It feels good. That was a battle. —Jazz forward Boris Diaw
LOS ANGELES — Whether at home or on the road, the white dry-erase board in the Utah Jazz locker room is usually filled with a multitude of defensive schemes, offensive pointers and strategic reminders about that night’s game and the opponent du jour.
The message on Sunday was a little bit different.
It was a lot shorter.
Before this important do-or-die game, Jazz coach Quin Snyder only wanted one word written largely on the board for his team to mull over before Game 7 of their first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Assistant coach Mike Wells wrote the succinct but powerful message in uppercase letters with a black marker about an hour and a half before tipoff. He underlined it three times. Over the next 48 minutes of action, Jazz players added exclamation marks with the way they heeded the message in an impressive 104-91 series-clinching victory.
“It feels good,” Jazz forward Boris Diaw said. “That was a battle.”
Soak it up, Utah. Your team is in the second round for the first time since 2010 when guys like Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, Paul Millsap and Wesley Matthews were the key cogs.
A franchise that only won 25 games three years ago and went through a massive overhaul can now add a first-round victory to its resume thanks to a group effort from the likes of All-Star Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gobert, veteran additions Joe Johnson, George Hill and Diaw, revived big man Derrick Favors, and contributions from wings Joe Ingles and Rodney Hood, among others.
“It means a lot. It definitely means a lot. I think it's just me and Fav from that rookie season. So we've been through some pretty hard downs,” Hayward said. “The community has stuck with us, and so it definitely feels really good to go from 25 wins to where we were to this year making the playoffs, winning a series.
“I know Salt Lake has been blessed with just the tradition of playoff success, so for them to stick with me and stick with Fav and ride it out, it means a lot. I know they're going to be excited to have us come back and play again in front of them, and it means a lot for me to play in front of them.”
First things, first.
Round 2 against the Golden State Warriors begins Tuesday and continues Thursday at Oracle Arena in Oakland. The Jazz will return to Vivint Arena, home of a disappointing Game 6 setback on Friday night, this Saturday and next Monday.
“It’s big. It’s big,” Gobert said of the series and Game 7 win. “But now we’re going to focus on the Warriors. You know, we want more.”
The Stifle Tower isn’t just referring to wanting more playing time after a frustrating personal game because of foul trouble. He’s referring to something much bigger, which is why the celebration was somewhat muted in the visitors locker room.
“Not too much,” Gobert said when asked about the locker room celebration. “It’s not the ultimate goal. It’s not to pass the first round. We want more. It’s great. We’re excited, but we’ve got to stay focused and be ready in a few days.”
And that ultimate goal?
“The ultimate goal is a championship,” Gobert said. “We all know it. But if we don’t believe it, nobody is going to believe it. We’ve just got to believe it. We know it’s not easy, but we’re up to the challenge.”
They certainly were on Sunday against the favored Clippers when the Jazz showed the grit, resilience and depth that have been the team’s characteristics all season during a Game 7 that surprisingly turned into a second-half blowout.
And then some.
The Jazz competed against the best Chris Paul had to give them, limiting the superstar to just 13 points on 6-of-19 shooting.
“Man, I know I’ve got to be better,” said Paul, who was missing his sidekick Blake Griffin because of a toe injury. “I’ve got to be better, especially a Game 7 like this.”
They competed on another team’s home court like they felt at home, winning at Staples Center for the third time this series after only winning once at home in three games.
"Listen, they beat us," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "Not having Blake (Griffin) obviously is a major wound when you take your best scorer, your second-best rebounder, your second-best passer off a team, but give Utah credit. I mean, they won the series. I think they should get the congratulations, and there's no excuses. We lost."
The Jazz competed through foul trouble to their two best big men, with Gobert compiling more fouls (six) than points (one), rebounds (four) and blocks (zero) combined in 13 minutes and Favors powering to 17 points and 13 rebounds in a spirited effort.
“It feels real good,” Favors said. “I was struggling a lot this season with (knee) injuries, and my teammates had to hold it down for me while I was out. But I felt like I owed them, especially in this game.”
They competed until they achieved another first-in-a-long-time accomplishment, first making it to the playoffs for the first time since 2012 and then winning their first playoff game and series since a second-round run in 2010. And they did that despite Gobert’s knee injury that kept him out of three games in the series and Hayward’s food poisoning that limited him in Game 4 and the foul issues in Game 7 and some inconsistent shooting from wings for a couple of games.
“If we were going to be able to advance,” Snyder said, “in some ways it was fitting that it would be kind of through a difficult set of circumstances.”
And yet they did.
The Jazz, heeding the advice of their intense and passionate coach, competed their way into the Western Conference semifinals for a showdown with the powerful Warriors even after it seemed dire following Friday’s blown close-out opportunity in Utah.
They competed with Hayward leading the way with 26 points and eight rebounds and Hill adding 17 points and five assists.
They competed with Diaw showing up big during a 15-5 run to open the second half as Utah took an insurmountable lead that got as big as 21 points.
They competed with Hayward, Hill, Ingles and Johnson clutching up for big shots in the fourth quarter to counter the Clippers' late run.
"Again, it was next man up. We've done it all year," Ingles said. "Nearly everyone got in today off the bench, and they all impacted the game in some way."
One big word to motivate a team.
One bigger win to send a state into sports euphoria.