Al Jefferson got two stiches over his left eye and returned to the game. Nothing was going to keep him from getting the Utah Jazz into the playoffs.
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When it mattered most, Jefferson came up huge, scoring eight straight points late in the fourth quarter to seal Utah’s 100-88 victory over the Phoenix Suns, and giving the Jazz the Western Conference’s last playoff berth.
”It’s good to make people eat their words,” Jefferson said of doubters who thought Utah was too young and inexperienced to reach postseason. ”That’s what we did. Now it’s time to go and shock the world.”
Jefferson left the game with 7:30 remaining in the third quarter after suffering a gash over his left eye.
”You should have seen me back there rushing the doctors,” Jefferson said.
He returned just as teammate Derrick Favors picked up his fourth foul. Then in the fourth, April’s Western Conference Player of the Month took over.
The Suns trailed 85-80 when Jefferson dunked off a baseline move then hit an 18-footer to start his personal run. He finished with 18 points and 16 rebounds, accepted high fives from his teammates then raised his right index finger skyward and punched the air as the final buzzer ended.
”We contained Al for three quarters and then he started scoring all over the place,” Phoenix center Marcin Gortat said. ”He got hot.”
Jefferson had put all the pressure on himself, calling Tuesday the biggest game of his career as he sought to get back to the playoffs for the first time since he was a rookie with Boston in 2005.
The victory halted Utah’s seven-game losing streak to the Suns, dating to March 2010.
The Jazz still can move up to the No. 7 seed if they beat Portland on Thursday at home and Denver loses its final two games.
The Suns, meanwhile, will miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
Phoenix’s regular-season finale at home against San Antonio on Wednesday could be Steve Nash’s final game for the Suns. The two-time MVP and eight-time All-Star will become a free agent this summer and is seeking a three-year deal.
”Phoenix feels like my team,” he said as he iced down and enjoyed a beer with Jazz assistant Jeff Hornacek in the locker room.
”It has the feel — and you don’t always get it in professional sports — but it feels like a high-school or college team. I spent so many years here and had so much success here. It’s a special place for me, no question.”
Nash finished with 14 points and 11 assists but also had five turnovers.
Jared Dudley and Michael Redd scored 15 apiece for Phoenix, and Hakim Warrick had 12 for the Suns, who were without 6-foot-11 forward Channing Frye because of a shoulder injury.
Forward Grant Hill tried to play after missing four games with a sore knee. But he started 0 for 3 and lasted only 3 minutes.
”Their bigs gave us a really hard time,” Nash said. ”Without Channing and Grant, it would have been just too much to ask.”
It didn’t help that the Jazz have a new Big 3. It used to be Karl Malone, John Stockton and coach Jerry Sloan.
Now it’s a lineup that features Jefferson at center, moves Paul Millsap to small forward and inserts Favors, a second-year pro, at power forward. Tuesday night they combined for 57 points, 42 rebounds and eight blocked shots.
”On the offensive end, it creates a mismatch,” said Millsap, who led Utah with 26 points and 15 rebounds. ”On the defensive end you got me out there roaming, and got two shot-blockers down the middle. We got the best of both worlds.”
The Jazz return to the playoffs after missing out last year in a season that saw Hall of Famer Sloan abruptly resign Feb. 10, 2011, and the team trade superstar point guard Deron Williams two weeks later.
They did it despite being two games under .500 after a March 14 loss at Phoenix, playing lineups jumbled by injuries and by giving their under-21 players plenty of playing time.
Utah also has played seven overtime games, including a double-OT loss to Toronto, a triple-OT win over Dallas and a quadruple-OT loss in Atlanta. Seventeen other games have been decided by five points or fewer.
The Jazz go into the playoffs with seven of their 14 players age 26 or younger, including four who are 21 or younger — Gordon Hayward, Favors, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks.
Though young, they are on a roll. Tuesday’s win was their fourth straight, much to the delight of the crowd, which rose to its feet and chanted ”Playoffs, Playoffs” toward game’s end.
Jefferson cracked up at the thought.
He’s used to hearing chants for the No. 1 draft pick.
”Seven long years, seven long years since I’ve been in the playoffs,” Jefferson said. ”It’s a great opportunity. A lot of people counted us out. It’s a great group of guys and everyone on our team deserves it.”
NOTES: The Jazz announced backup PG Earl Watson won’t play again until next season after right knee surgery April 17. … Jazz SG Raja Bell was active for the first time after missing 13 games with a knee injury but did not play. … Favors’ five blocks in the first half tied his career high. … Hayward tied a career high with eight assists.