Along with the confetti and the celebration at the final horn Friday night was the unmistakable sense of pride swelling through EnergySolutions Arena. Not even the loss of two injured starters was enough to keep the Jazz from advancing in these NBA playoffs.
The Jazz held on throughout a roller-coaster Game 6 before finishing off the Northwest Division champion Denver Nuggets with a fourth-quarter push for a 112-104 victory, closing out a series in which they'd once been all but counted out.
For the third time in four years, the Jazz have won a first-round playoff series despite not having home-court advantage. This one undoubtedly will rank as the most improbable against a Nuggets team that reached last year's Western Conference finals.
"We just have a lot of fight in us," Deron Williams said. "We didn't listen to what everybody was saying outside of our locker room, we felt we could beat this team. We had struggled against them in the regular season, but that was over. We just had confidence."
Now the Jazz's short-handed playoff run leaves them with the ultimate challenge, facing Kobe Bryant and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals, beginning with Game 1 Sunday at 1:30 p.m. at Staples Center.
"Obviously, we've had a lot of trouble with the Lakers, everybody knows that," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said. "They're big and long and we're not very big and long when it's all said and done.
"But you come and play and do the best you can. Our guys, I think, will lay it out there and compete and that's all you can ask them to do. We'll see what happens. We certainly know who [the Lakers] are."
Carlos Boozer totaled 22 points and 20 rebounds, undrafted rookie Wesley Matthews had 23 points and Paul Millsap finished with 21 points. The Jazz won the fourth quarter 29-24, breaking open the game with an 11-0 run.
The Nuggets went 3-1 against the Jazz in the regular season, but saw the Jazz's teamwork trump their individual talent in this series. Carmelo Anthony had 20 points but made just 6 of 20 shots while Chauncey Billups scored a game-high 30 points.
Having lost to the Lakers in both the 2008 conference semifinals (six games) and 2009 first round (five games), the Jazz will be bidding to avoid becoming the 14th team in NBA history ever to be eliminated by the same team in three consecutive playoffs.
The last team to do so was Washington, which lost to Cleveland in the 2006, 2007 and 2008 playoffs. The Lakers went 3-1 against the Jazz this season; Williams said simply, "Third time's a charm, right?"
"What's in the past is in the past," Millsap said, adding, "We're a much better team than what we were. We look forward to it being different this time, a different outcome."
"The Lakers are the best team in the NBA," Ronnie Price added. "I think everybody is excited to go into L.A. and try to be the aggressor in this series and come out with some wins."
The Jazz have lost 14 consecutive games to the Lakers at Staples Center, including all six in the 2008 and 2009 playoffs. Their last victory came Jan. 1, 2006, with Gordan Giricek, Jarron Collins and Keith McLeod starting and Bryant suspended.
The Lakers beat the Jazz at EnergySolutions Arena in both the 2008 and 2009 playoffs and ended the Jazz's nine-game winning streak this season with a 96-81 victory Feb. 10 in Utah that came with Bryant and Andrew Bynum both out injured.
"They're usually a team that tries to come out and blow you out in one quarter and they've done that to us on several occasions," Williams said.
The Jazz lost Andrei Kirilenko to a strained calf before the Nuggets series and will have to counter the Lakers' size advantage in Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Bynum without Mehmet Okur, who suffered a ruptured left Achilles tendon in Game 1 in Denver.
As for Friday's game, the Jazz survived to win a wild 2-hour, 52-minute marathon marked by 70 fouls and five technicals fouls. They built a 15-point lead in the second quarter, then watched it all but vanish before halftime thanks to Denver's Joey Graham.
Graham had played just five minutes in the series, yet scored 19 points in the first half. The Jazz took a 56-54 lead into halftime, then were staggered coming out by a 10-0 Denver run that included two Billups three-pointers.
The Jazz had to weather the loss of Williams as well, as he walked directly to the bench after picking up his fourth foul with 6:02 left in the third quarter. But the Jazz managed to outscore Denver 14-10 to close the quarter without their point guard.
They broke open the game in the fourth quarter after Boozer returned for the final 8:23. Millsap finished two three-point plays as the Jazz looked to exploit the Nene-less Nuggets inside.
Matthews stroked a three-pointer, blocked Anthony and held his ground to draw a loose-ball foul on Anthony. Billups was called for a technical foul and Matthews converted all three free throws to make it 104-95.
Williams got caught by a pick in the final minute and suffered a bruised left elbow but said afterward he was fine. He had 14 points and 10 assists Friday and averaged 25.8 points and 11.3 assists for the series.
"We still believe we can continue to win," Williams said. "As long as we play Jazz basketball, we play good defense, we help out, we keep our assist numbers up, make extra passes, we'll be successful."
In short » The Jazz close out the Nuggets with a fourth-quarter push and will face the Lakers for the third consecutive playoffs.
Key moment » Paul Millsap makes two three-point plays and Wesley Matthews scores eight points in the fourth quarter.
Game 1 » Denver 126, Utah 113
Game 2 » Utah 114, Denver 111
Game 3 » Utah 105, Denver 93
Game 4 » Utah 117, Denver 106
Game 5 » Denver 116, Utah 102
Game 6 » Utah 112, Denver 104