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Al Jefferson spent his entire career working toward this.
A night when no one could question his effort or intensity. A game when every one of his points and rebounds meant something. A relentless fight where Jefferson was the biggest, baddest player on the court.
And then some.
Big Al punched out the Dallas Mavericks on Monday, scoring a team-high 28 points and tying a career high with 26 rebounds, all while lifting Utah (32-30) to a thrilling 123-121 triple overtime victory at EnergySolutions Arena before a crowd of 19,363.
The 545th game of Jefferson's eight-year NBA career was his best. He topped it off by playing a game-high 54 minutes and 4 seconds one of four Jazz players to eclipse the 52-minute mark.
After the battle, Jefferson said he could've fought for 10 more minutes. Yes, he was tired. Yes, he'd left it all on the hardwood his voice was hoarse, his body was covered in sweat and he was slumped down in a chair inside Utah's exhausted locker room. But while Jefferson's phone was drowning in messages and teammate DeMarre Carroll was swarmed by cameras and recorders, Utah's starting center was calm and cool.
The Jazz haven't given up all season. They have four games left; four fights remain. Round one went to Utah. Jefferson said it's just the start.
"We just got to see where our heart is at, and I know everybody in [our] locker room wants to make the playoffs," Jefferson said. "So we are going to fight, and we are going to fight till the end. That's all we can do."
Riding the Al train, Utah finally gained ground in the Western Conference. The Jazz are still in 10th place. But Utah's only half a game behind struggling Houston, and the Jazz hold a tiebreaker against the Rockets.
Eight of Jefferson's points came during the second and third OTs combined, as Utah avenged a quadruple-overtime road loss to Atlanta on March 25 and held off Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki, who scored a game-high 40 points and often was a one-man show for the Mavericks (34-28).
With the Jazz's playoff hopes wavering, Utah relied on everyone from Gordon Hayward and Devin Harris to Carroll to pull out a win clearly worthy of a team clawing for a postseason spot.
Too often, Dallas looked old. Starting point guard Jason Kidd didn't play during the final overtime, while Nowitzki was held scoreless. Starters Shawn Marion and Brendan Haywood were held to a combined four points overall, while everyone from Vince Carter to Jason Terry missed key shots. A Mavericks team playing back-to-back road games coming off an overtime loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday ran out of life at the same time Jefferson and Harris stepped up.
"It's a disappointing loss. … It was a phenomenal game. The competition was great. But we came up short," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said.
Paul Millsap didn't.
Utah trailed 89-87 after Carter drilled a wide-open 23-foot 3-pointer from the right wing with 8.5 seconds left in regulation.
Hayward missed a running layup on the Jazz's next possession. But Millsap caught the loose ball at the top of its flight and slammed home a soaring putback dunk, tying the game at 89 and sending it into OT.
Nowitzki saved the Mavericks during the initial extra period, erasing an 8-0 Jazz run by calmly draining a 3 from the top of the key with 3 seconds left.
Utah and Dallas combined for only 12 points during the second overtime, with Jefferson hitting a 17-footer to extend the game again.
The Jazz never trailed during the third OT. Millsap, Jefferson and Harris all connected, and a 24-foot 3 by Harris with 1:38 remaining made it 118-115 Utah.
Dallas and Nowitzki were done. Utah's playoff dreams were still alive. Jefferson was standing on top of the mountain.
"He was huge," Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. "I mean, 26 rebounds, the timely shots he made on the perimeter. They did a great job of not letting him catch the ball down low. They were double-teaming him as soon as he got it they had bodies on him all night to try to get him off the block. But he hung in there."
So did the Jazz. And now Utah has four games left to reach its destination.
Jazz guard Earl Watson will undergo surgery Tuesday to repair a torn medial meniscus in his right knee. Watson, 32, injured his knee April 8 during a road loss to San Antonio. … Former Utes men's basketball coach Rick Majerus attended the game.
Mavericks-Jazz box score: http://bit.ly/I1jGej
Western Conference playoff standings: http://bit.ly/InlaB7
Tribune reporter Tony Jones contributed to this story.
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Check The Tribune's Jazz Notes blog at sltrib.com/Blogs/jazznotes for exclusive news, interviews, video and analysis. Storylines Jazz fight through 3OT
R In short • The Jazz fought off Dallas for a 123-121 triple-overtime win on Monday.
Key stat • Utah center Al Jefferson scored 28 points, tied a career-high 26 rebounds and played 54 minutes.
Key moment • Devin Harris hit a 3 late in the third overtime to make it 118-115 Jazz.