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Monson: Jazz showing playoff pluck and grit because ... they have to

Published April 4, 2017 10:40 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Coming off Sunday's loss at San Antonio, the Jazz could look at themselves and Tuesday night's home game against the Trail Blazers one of two ways: 1) As that of a victim of the NBA's most-difficult-closing schedule, Portland being one of the league's hottest teams, winners of eight of its past 10 games and duly motivated, battling for the West's last playoff spot, or 2) As that of an opportunistic group, holding steady at the fourth position, steeling themselves for the elevated play of the postseason, where every possession is meaningful, every game a fight.

They rallied on the latter.

In the here and now, it boosted them not one iota that three of their starters — George Hill, Rodney Hood and Derrick Favors — missed the game, along with Raul Neto. The regular season-injury ratio for the Jazz has reached a laughably ludicrous point. It seems the team is preparing for the playoffs as best it can with what's left — and by dressing the rest in $5,000 custom threads and Italian-made loafers behind the bench, hoping for them to heal.

The Jazz went ahead and won by the count of 106-87, even while there were short stretches when they played with their daubers down, with a poor-us ambience that bounced around the court, off the basket, off the walls, off the beams, off the scoreboard, nothing but fret.

On the other hand, ultimately, they made up for those brief down periods with an increase of grit and pluck, by doing what they're supposed to do, at least in Quin Snyder's mind — play a kind of menacing defense that severely limited a Blazers team that averages 109 points per game.

"Everybody has to throw themselves into the team," Snyder said.

Everybody who could run, did.

Rudy Gobert watched the interior, blocking three shots, altering many more, while the Jazz perimeter defenders were busy with the scoring explosiveness of a great guard line.

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have vexed the Jazz before, and it was a challenge again, especially with second-tier guys forming the resistance. They formed it, all right. Lillard, who ranks second in league scoring since the All-Star break, getting 30 points per game, went for only 16 on 5-for-20 shooting on Tuesday, McCollum for 25. Over the past month, Lillard's been killing opponents — nothing new for the point guard we've all been watching since he played at Weber State.

But this was a different thing: Lillard never locked in, and the rest of the Blazers couldn't make up for that, not even after Dante Exum left the game in the third quarter — helloooo, is anybody left? — on account of a hip contusion.

"The best thing for us is … the guys who are available, play," Snyder said. "And the guys who aren't, work their tails to get back."

The Jazz benefited by way of two favorable circumstances; Portland was playing the second game of a back-to-back and Jusuf Nurkic, the Bosnian big who had helped turn the Blazers' season around after arriving in a trade, was lost for the remainder of the regular season in the Blazers' recent win over Houston.

They missed him on Tuesday, but, rightfully, got no sympathy from the perpetually injured Jazz. Nobody for Portland could quite replicate Nurkic's contributions.

Still, a hurdle remained, a hurdle cleared by the Jazz with more than enough lift. They took an early 11-point lead, saw it evaporate in the second quarter, then closed out strong. Gordon Hayward scored 30 points, Gobert 20. Joe Johnson was big off the bench, with 13.

But by the end, it was the Jazz conquering themselves — and their own misfortune — that stood out. This team has gotten so used to playing with one busted fist casted and tied behind its back, it's grown accustomed to successfully punching back with the other. Not always, its weaknesses emerging against some of the league's better teams. But, despite the flaws, the steeling for the playoffs is taking place.

"It can be emotionally draining," Snyder said. "Every day, you wake up trying to figure out who your teammates are going to be. … That uncertainty is difficult to handle."

Said Gobert: "We have tough guys."

If the Jazz heal over the next week, incorporating their missing parts, fighting on, it will push them favorably toward the playoffs against, say, the Clippers in the first round — with or without home court. From here on out, what's in their minds and hearts is as important as what's in their battered arms and bruised legs.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM. Twitter: @GordonMonson.






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