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On the back of Paul Millsap. From the power of Derrick Favors. Through the perseverance of Devin Harris. Because of Al Jefferson.
The Jazz are returning to the NBA postseason, and Utah's back where it belongs.
Carried by Millsap's game-high 26 points and 15 rebounds, the Jazz held off the Phoenix Suns for a season-defining 100-88 victory on Tuesday at EnergySolutions Arena.
With the win, the Jazz (35-30) earned their 25th playoff appearance in franchise history. The victory cemented an unexpected resurgence by a small-market Utah franchise that went 39-43 during the 2010-11 season, failed to make the postseason, and lost coach Jerry Sloan and All-Star guard Deron Williams.
"It's a tremendous achievement for a group of guys that laid it out there every night," Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. "Whatever happened, good or bad, they stayed together. That's the most rewarding thing to see them rewarded for all the hard work they put in."
The Jazz could finish as high as No. 7 when the regular season ends Thursday. Utah would then take on Oklahoma City in the first round, which starts Saturday. The Jazz are guaranteed at least the eighth seed, and would face No. 1 San Antonio.
"They are both very good teams. They're one and two for a reason," Harris said. "San Antonio is playing really great right now and Oklahoma City speaks for themselves with deep playoff runs the last couple of years. … We'll be ready to go."
Jefferson scored eight points on 4-of-6 shooting during the fourth quarter, finishing with 18 points and a game-high 16 rebounds. During shootaround Tuesday morning, he called the matchup the biggest contest of his career, since he hadn't been to the playoffs since his rookie season in 2004-05 with Boston. Against the Suns, Big Al formed a Big Three with Millsap and Favors, and they pounded in a combined 57 points and 42 rebounds.
"Seven long years since I been in the playoffs. It's a blessing," Jefferson said. "It's a great opportunity to get here. A lot of people counted us out. Nobody thought this team would be in a position to get in the playoffs and we made it. It's a great group of guys and everyone on our team deserves it."
Steve Nash's 14 points and 11 assists topped Phoenix (33-32), which never looked right all night. The Suns were held to 40.5 percent (34 of 84) shooting from the field, 21.7 percent (5 of 23) behind the 3-point line and committed 15 turnovers for 19 Utah points.
"We've just got to play better," Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry said. "In a game like this, you've just got to play better. … You know they outplayed us. In simple terms, they deserved to win the game."
While ESA was ear-splitting from jump ball peaking with a "playoffs" chant midway through the fourth quarter the Jazz came out tight. Utah fell behind 17-15, struggling to defend Phoenix's pick-and-roll, and it took 11 first-quarter points from Millsap to keep the Jazz close.
The second quarter belonged to Favors.
The 20-year-old power forward destroyed Suns center Marcin Gortat in the paint, tying a career high with five blocks before halftime. As the Jazz went big, Phoenix shrank.
"I just came out doing my part, playing my role," said Favors, who finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds. "I just come out and play defense, rebound and block shots, and try and start the fast break."
Nash never looked comfortable, Gortat was 1 of 6 from the floor, and an increasingly confident Utah team took a 49-42 lead into the break.
The Jazz failed to capitalize during the third quarter, threatening to break open the game several times but never putting Phoenix away. A running floater by Nash with 1:15 left in the period pulled the Suns within 67-66. But five consecutive points by rookie guard Alec Burks pushed Utah to a 73-68 advantage heading into the final 12 minutes.
Phoenix reserve guard Michael Redd fired out of the fourth, pouring in five quick points and suddenly handing the Suns a 76-74 lead.
Then Millsap and Harris took over, and the Jazz finally silenced Phoenix with a game-changing 11-2 run.
The "playoffs" chant grew louder. Then confetti poured down.
Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor was smiling. President Randy Rigby was giving fist bumps. Jefferson joked and hollered, while everyone from Gordon Hayward to Harris beamed while discussing their team one they told anyone who'd listen all season never to count out.
The Jazz are back in the postseason.
And they swear the battle's only begun.
"We've been fighting all year," Millsap said. "We went out there and fought and we're going back to the playoffs, and thank God for it. We worked hard for it."
The Tribune's Steve Luhm contributed reporting
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Jazz in the playoffs
Appearances • 24
Overall record • 114-123
Home record • 85-36
Road record • 29-87
Playoff record vs. San Antonio • 12-8
Playoff record vs. Oklahoma City/Seattle • 12-10
First-round record (games) • 59-56
First-round record (series) • 14-10
Last first-round win • 2010 (defeated Denver, 4-2)
Last conference final • 2007 (lost to San Antonio, 4-1)
Last NBA Finals • 1998 (lost to Chicago, 4-2)