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Monson: The Jazz now seek a reward worthy of the effort to earn it

Published April 13, 2017 2:59 pm

Utah Jazz • For Hayward and Favors, this second go-round at the postseason is particularly meaningful
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

The Jazz worked for their reward this season, a reward that rattled around their brains nearly every day, every game, every minute, from the opening of camp until their final regular-season victory against San Antonio on Wednesday night.

They sought what they had gone without for too long: the playoffs.

"That's the goal, that's what we want," Gordon Hayward said with a bright-faced nod, six months ago.

But somewhere in the far reaches of his mind, there must have been a corner of darkness, harboring doubts, not about accomplishing the goal, rather about the fury the achievement would bring. It was Bruce Springsteen who sang the words, "With every wish there comes a curse." And, man, didn't Hayward know it.

Actually, he'd tried to forget it.

Those players who have experienced the NBA postseason are fully aware that what the Jazz have earned for themselves here, starting with a first-round showdown against the Clippers on Saturday night at Staples Center, is one bad mother that can pat them on the head one minute, then turn them inside out, expose them and punish them, kick them in the teeth and laugh at their pain the next, especially if they are unprepared for or unworthy of the challenge.

After Wednesday's game, as the regular season finally ended with 51 wins taken by the Jazz, Hayward was asked about his first and only exposure to the playoffs in 2012. He reflected back on it with all the fondness of a 20-car pileup on the freeway. He didn't want to rehash it, re-live it or remember it. Same with Derrick Favors and Alec Burks, the only other remaining Jazz players from that time. Their frame of reference included getting promptly and rudely and summarily dismissed from the playoffs by the Spurs. It wasn't close, it wasn't competitive, it wasn't a fair match.

"We got swept, that's the only thing I remember," Favors said. "It was a tough series for us."

It was beyond tough. It was humiliating.

After losing Game 3 on their home floor that year, Favors was upset, saying back then: "We're frustrated. We played our hearts out, and that's what it comes down to now. It's heart. We have to just go out and play. We have to find the fight in us. Knock somebody down. Do whatever has to be done. Do … something."

The Jazz did do something. They lost the fourth game.

"They made plays down the stretch and we didn't," Hayward said, after finishing with four points on 1-for-10 shooting in that third game. "We have to be better in every facet of the game - on offense and defense. They've just been better than us."

Spurs coach Greg Popovich said after one loss in that series: "The Jazz couldn't throw it in the ocean."

In the elimination game, they couldn't throw it in any of the oceans, making a mere 32 of 88 attempts, including posting a goose egg - oh-for-13 - from beyond the arc. For the series, the Jazz shot just 38 percent overall and made only 9 of 45 3-pointers.

Hayward was particularly overwhelmed. He played 123 minutes in the four games, averaging 7.3 points. He took 33 shots and made six. He went 1-for-12 on deep balls, and, in total, hit just 18 percent from the floor. Favors was a bit better, making 41 percent of his attempts and hauling 38 boards. Burks played a minor role.

Fast forward five years, and circumstances around here have changed. Not only are the Jazz a better team than they were in 2012, their first-round opponent, the Clippers, are an even match, as opposed to the then-No. 1 seeded Spurs. But the differences go beyond just that.

The Jazz back then had some promising young talent on their roster — Hayward was in his second year, Favors in his second, Enes Kanter was a rookie — but the team was dominated by a mishmash of veterans, such as Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, CJ Miles, Devin Harris, Jamaal Tinsley, and Raja Bell. It was as though the roster had been put together by the tipping of a junk drawer and gathering in the loose parts. The effectiveness of the group, the plan for its future seemed … jangled.

No longer is that the case. You know the story. The Jazz face the Clippers with a collection of burgeoning talent, with a rock-steady future that, if they retain their key parts, will continue to ascend over the next five seasons. Rudy Gobert and Hayward have improved in an uncommon, dramatic manner. At the ages of 24 and 27, they are now authentic stars. Gobert could end up first team all-NBA this season and Hayward could be third team. Point in any direction and there's bona fide help — Favors, George Hill, Rodney Hood, Joe Johnson, Joe Ingles, Dante Exum, Shelvin Mack, Boris Diaw, Jeff Withey, Raul Neto. It's Quin Snyder's complicated job to figure out the most workable playoff rotation.

Whatever the coming weeks bring, Hayward and Favors, in particular, are looking to replace a forgettable experience with a memorable one. A reward, after all, especially one five years in the making, has no business blowing up in the face of those who have earned it.

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






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