Jefferson, Jazz ready for leap to postseason

There was a time when Al Jefferson was overwhelmed, struggling

through a fitness evaluation program just months after his 2010

trade to the Utah Jazz from Minnesota.

”He really got his butt handed to him,” said Marcus Elliott,

who runs the specialty P3 camp in Santa Barbara, Calif. ”I don’t

think he enjoyed any minute he was with us. Of all the athletes, he

was the one who battled it the most.”

Jefferson, however, made a second go at the program last

offseason – on his own during the NBA lockout – even relocating to

Santa Barbara for an extended period so he could put in the

time.

The eighth-year pro wanted to be able to defend stronger, jump

higher and stay healthy – rededicating himself with the goal of

returning to the playoffs for the first time since his rookie

season.

One win against the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night and the Jazz

will be in.

His teammates want it as much for the big guy as Jefferson

himself.

Even certain opponents find it hard to root against him.

”I think he deserves it,” said Orlando Magic center Glen

Davis, a fellow southerner who has battled Jefferson since their

AAU days. ”People underestimate the guy. People look past him. But

he’s a great player.”

Jefferson leads the Jazz in just about every statistical

category – points per game (19.4), rebounds (9.6), minutes (34.4)

and blocks (1.68) – and his shooting percentage (.494) lags just

slightly behind the two youngsters he is mentoring: Derrick Favors

and Enes Kanter.

He even made his first career 3-pointer this year, the night he

fought back tears after losing his grandmother.

The 27-year-old Jefferson ranks second among NBA centers in

scoring behind only Orlando’s Dwight Howard, who won’t be available

for the playoffs or London Olympics following back surgery for a

herniated disk.

Overall, Jefferson’s numbers are the best since he tore his

right ACL midway through the 2008-09 season with Minnesota, which

acquired him in July 2007 from Boston in the Kevin Garnett

trade.

”Normally at this time of the season I lose my strength,” said

Jefferson.

All the offseason work has helped him stay strong.

Saturday’s overtime victory against Orlando marked his 30th

double-double of the season, with a key block and rebound down the

stretch as well as the game-tying 12-footer with 21 seconds left in

regulation.

In overtime, he scored Utah’s first points with a nice spin move

around Davis, and set up the clinching 3-pointers when he was

double-teamed inside.

”He’s our go-to guy,” point guard Devin Harris said. ”He

demands so much attention. Everybody’s talking about my 3-point

shooting, but he’s a big part of that because of the double teams

he demands.”

Five days earlier, Jefferson fueled Utah’s triple-overtime

victory over Dallas. He scored 28 and tied a career high with 26

rebounds – the third-most in franchise history and most since the

team moved from New Orleans in 1979.

He showed off power moves inside and soft jumpers, and had two

blocks, a steal and an assist.

”He played a gazillion minutes,” Jazz strength coach Mark

McKown said of Jefferson’s 54 minutes vs. Dallas. ”And he was

still explosive.”

In Santa Barbara last year, experts fixed biomechanics that were

making Jefferson more prone to injury, speeded up his second jump,

improved his standing vertical 4 inches and boosted his lower-body

power. Overall, it was a big difference from that first session,

when jumping up to a 24-inch box looked so daunting for Jefferson,

Elliott was almost afraid to watch.

Last offseason in Santa Barbara, the 6-foot-10, 289-pound

Jefferson was able to leap onto 48-inch boxes.

”There was no way that was in the realm of possibility when we

first saw him,” Elliott said. ”He really was pretty beat down

with that first experience. (Last year) he was hungry. He always

wanted more.”

That’s especially true now, with two games remaining in the

regular season, including the huge game against the Suns.