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Los Angeles • The first time he shared a court with the legend, Gordon Hayward stood in awe as he watched Kobe Bryant warming up on the other end of the court.
"I can remember [former Jazz forward] Jeremy Evans and I just smiling. I don't think either one of us believed we were in the NBA, playing against him," Hayward recalled recently.
But as he prepares to take the court against him one last time this week, Hayward will be all business.
"Just win," Hayward said of his team's mindset after a costly loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Monday night that put the Jazz's playoff hopes in peril. "We can't be worried about anything else. There's going to be a lot of hoopla, a lot of energy in the building for sure. Respect to Kobe Bryant and the fact that it's his last game, but we've got to win."
If only it were that simple, spirits might be a bit higher in Jazzland these days.
The Jazz would need to spoil Bryant's retirement party at Staples Center in order to sneak into the playoffs as the eighth seed in the West. But first, they would need the Sacramento Kings to upset the Rockets in Houston. After a disappointing home loss to a Clippers team resting its entire starting last week and Monday's letdown against the Mavericks, the Jazz have put their playoff future in someone else's hands.
"We're going to need some help," Hayward said.
The Jazz and Rockets will carry identical records (40-41) into the season's last day but Houston holds the coveted tiebreaker thanks to having a better record against conference foes (27-24) than the Jazz (24-27). A win for the Rockets on Wednesday would kill the Jazz's postseason dreams. That fact isn't lost on the Jazz, but it's one they will try to put out of their minds.
"Stranger things have happened," coach Quin Snyder said. "We're in the same position we were in before … as far as just having to control what we can control."
What the Jazz can't control, however, is what will be taking place in Houston. The Kings, reportedly, will be without leading scorer DeMarcus Cousins and starting point guard Rajon Rondo, among others, for their finale. That means the Jazz will need Kings guard Seth Curry to step up big if Utah has any shot of meeting his brother, Steph, and the Golden State Warriors in the first round. But at the moment, hinging hopes on lottery-bound Sacramento going on the road and upsetting a motivated Rockets squad certainly seems like a long shot. Houston has been a model of inconsistency this season, but with their season on the line, All-Star James Harden should be ready for a depleted Kings team.
That's what made Monday's loss to the Mavericks so disappointing for the Jazz. A win would have almost certainly meant a postseason berth. The loss now has them on the outside looking in and having to hope for help.
"It's tough. We worked for this all year," forward Derrick Favors said after Monday's loss. "… We just have to be ready for that last game."
With the Rockets and Kings tipping off at 6 p.m. MDT and the Jazz and Lakers set for an 8:30 MDT tipoff, the Utah locker room should know shortly before game time Wednesday what they're playing for.
Jazz at Lakers
P At the Staples Center, Los Angeles
Tipoff • Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. MDT
TV • ESPN2, ROOT
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 40-41; Lakers 16-65
About the Jazz • They would need a win over the Lakers and a Houston loss to Sacramento on Wednesday to sneak into the playoffs as the eighth seed. … Center Rudy Gobert badly rolled his ankle in the second quarter of Monday's loss and was seen on crutches and in a walking boot leaving the arena. He was ruled out for Wednesday's game. … Forward Derrick Favors played against the Mavericks but was clearly limited by a knee injury.
About the Lakers • It will be all about Kobe Bryant on Wednesday as the Lakers and the NBA say goodbye to the superstar at the end of his 20-year career. … The Lakers haven't beaten the Jazz this season, including suffering a 48-point loss at Utah last month.