In the first elimination game of the season, four days before the playoffs are even set to begin, the Utah Jazz have advanced while the Phoenix Suns head home for another long summer.
Utah became the final team to clinch a playoff berth with a passionate 100-88 win over Phoenix at Energy Solutions Arena on Tuesday night. Jazz big man Al Jefferson's fist pump with his team leading by 11 with 2:55 left acted as catharsis not just for his seven-year playoff drought, but for an eager Utah crowd, finally feeling safe to stand and cheer for the closing minutes of play. Though Paul Millsap's numbers (26 points, 15 rebounds) bested Jefferson's (18 and 16), it was Big Al who scored eighth consecutive points to put the game out of the reach.
The Jazz can claim the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference if Denver loses its final two games. The Suns could have made the playoffs by winning this game and then beating San Antonio on Wednesday, but instead they will miss the postseason for the second year in a row.
• Phoenix, which ranks ninth in the league in points per game (98.2), struggled early to find any offensive rhythm. With Grant Hill playing fewer than three minutes because of a sore knee and Channing Frye out with a shoulder injury, the Suns weren't able to space the floor to give Steve Nash room to operate in the paint and find the open man. But Phoenix's offensive woes weren't only a result of poor spacing inside. The Suns started the game unable to hit much outside of the paint in the first quarter, scoring six of their nine baskets in the lane. Twelve minutes later, the Suns found themselves with the opposite problem, with Utah's powerful front line of Jefferson and Millsap shutting down the paint. Phoenix relied on its perimeter shooting to keep the game close before halftime, but with poor transition defense, Utah was able to convert many of the Suns' long misses into 10 fast-break points in the second quarter.
• Perhaps no one missed Frye more than Marcin Gortat. Frye's absence meant that a much-needed three-point threat was missing from the Suns' offensive arsenal. Without Frye stretching the floor, Gortat was left to post up with three defenders collapsing around him. He shot 1-of-8 overall and found himself on the wrong end of many of the Jazz's eight blocks in the first half.
After having his shot blocked on two straight plays, Gortat was beaten down low by Jefferson late in the second quarter. After the made basket, Gortat simply looked to the sideline, shrugged at no one in particular and made his way slowly up the court. He didn't have another shot attempt for the remainder of the half and finished with just two points.
• After starting the fourth quarter with such composure, Phoenix let Utah gain control by relying too heavily on long jumpers and then failing to get back on defense. Finding success by taking the first available shot down the floor, the Suns weren't able to adjust and fall back into their normal offensive pick-and-roll sets when the shots stopped falling. With Nash still getting some needed rest, Phoenix started to unravel and lose the poise that had helped it pull ahead 76-74 two minutes into the fourth quarter. After a pair of quick drives by Sebastian Telfair, the Jazz adjusted their interior defense by planting Millsap and Jefferson in the lane early in the clock, and the Suns returned to the perimeter shots that simply wouldn't fall. Phoenix finished just 5-of-23 from behind the three-point line.
• While Utah's shooting percentage (42.5) wasn't impressive -- and neither was Phoenix's (40.5), for that matter -- the rest of its numbers made the victory possible. The Jazz did much of their damage on the boards against a weak rebounding team. Utah, which boasts a 51.6 percent rebounding rate (third in the league), secured 56 rebounds to Phoenix's 42. While Millsap and Jefferson combined for 31 rebounds, every Jazz player who played pulled in at least one. Coach Tyrone Corbin's team not only outrebounded its opponent by 14 but also forced the Suns out of their comfort zone and was prepared to take advantage of Phoenix's miscues.
• In a pivotal game in Nash's career, he finished with another unsung double-double. To call a 14-point, 11-assist night average speaks volumes about his contribution -- not just to the Suns, but to the entire league. A leader on the floor and a role model to most kids who have picked up a basketball in the last 12 years, Nash's contribution to the game was recognized with a standing ovation from an otherwise unfriendly Utah crowd as he exited a few plays before the final buzzer.