One and done. It’s one of the few advantages college basketball has over the NBA in a lot of folks’ eyes, all that single-elimination excitement and anxiety all balled up together.
Basically, it’s win-or-go-home time.
The NBA offers up something similar when the Phoenix Suns face the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City tonight (10:30 ET, TNT), less by design than by a happy confluence of schedules, records and survival to this point in the hectic post-lockout season.
If Utah wins, it is in, nabbing the eighth and final spot in the West. If Phoenix wins, it is (almost) in, factoring in some final brinksmanship by San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich.
Let’s be clear: Only the Jazz can clinch tonight. A victory at Energy Solutions Arena would leave Utah at 35-30 and Phoenix at 33-32, each with one game left.
But if Phoenix wins — the way it has won the past seven meetings in this series — the teams would be tied at 34-31. The Suns hold the tiebreaker already, thanks to their 2-0 mark head-to-head, with victories on March 14 and April 4.
The Suns are 14-18 on the road, though they have won four in a row in Salt Lake City. Utah is 23-8 at home, winning the past four. But the last time the Jazz beat Phoenix anywhere, Jerry Sloan was their coach and his starting five was Deron Williams, Wesley Matthews, Andrei Kirilenko, Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur. It’s been 25 months.
“We got to go into Utah – tough environment, tough atmosphere, tough team – and we got to win,” Suns guard Shannon Brown told reporters.
Said Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin: “You control your own destiny. You’re not looking to anybody else to back into it. It’s all on us to do what we need to do.”
Wait. So how does Popovich figure into all of this? He doesn’t — unless Phoenix wins tonight. Then it wraps up the season at home Wednesday against Popovich’s Spurs.
With the West’s top seed already assured, Popovich might be tempted — actually, should feel obliged — to send to Phoenix a team consisting of four bench players, a blogger, one equipment bag, a potted plant, two bottles of a nice chianti and some fava beans.
The fact is, Popovich owes Phoenix one after not taking Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to a road game in Salt Lake City on April 9. The undermanned Spurs scored only 84 points that night and, though it was close in the fourth quarter, Popovich essentially handed the Jazz a victory.
In fairness, he ought to give the Suns the same opportunity just to avoid gaming the playoffs. Then he could present Phoenix with a very different San Antonio squad in a few days when they meet in a 1-8 series.
Again, this only matters if Phoenix were to finish 2-0. If it won, then lost to the Spurs, the No. 8 spot would hinge on what Utah does Thursday in Salt Lake City against Portland, a team the Jazz are 3-0 against this season.
Utah is 6-4 in its last 10 games, including an overtime victory Saturday in which Orlando’s Jameer Nelson ran wild (23 points, 11 assists). The Jazz trailed by 13 early, so coping with Steve Nash might be an issue – again.
Averaging 12.5 points and 10.8 assists, Nash ranks second in the NBA in the latter category and is chasing a level of marksmenship – 50 percent field-goal shooting, 40 percent from 3-point range and 90 percent from the foul line – that he has achieved four times previously. Everyone else in NBA history has done it a combined five times.
The Jazz has some weapons of its own, notably up front (Western Conference playoff of the week Al Jefferson) and with Devin Harris and Gordon Hayward combining in April games for 35.7 points, 10.0 assists and 6.1 rebounds.
The way Nash is playing and his determination to get to the postseason (after a 12-19 start this season) has been one of the big stories of the NBA’s second half. One of its big stories for the better part of two decades, actually.
“He’s run the pick-and-roll for 20 years now or whatever it is,” Utah assistant coach Jeff Hornacek told the Salt Lake Tribune. “He’s like John Stockton in terms of, no matter how you guard him, he has an adjustment for it … There is not one thing you can do against that guy.”
Nash is right on his numbers against Utah this season: 12.5 ppg, 12.5 assists, 53.8 percent FG shooting, 3-of-7 3-pointers, 8-of-8 free throws. Phoenix won handily at home in March, 120-111, then got two clutch baskets by Nash in the final seconds of the 107-105 victory in Salt Lake City.
That one nudged Phoenix past Utah for ninth place in the West at the time.
The nudge this time will be a lot bigger, for one or the other.