DALLAS — Eight of 12.
Talk about last gasp, this is it for the Utah Jazz. Eight home games among their dozen remaining. It’s the final stand for a team laden with veteran free agents, including four of five starters; a team that prepared to be broken up at the trade deadline by reeling off 16 wins in 23 games, yet was left intact and has since tanked.
Utah is typically a force at home — 24-9 in front of one of the most engaged crowds in the league — and they’ll have to be invincible starting Monday night against Philadelphia. Considering Sunday’s ugly 113-108 loss to the Mavericks was their ninth consecutive road defeat, any home slip-up will serve as sledgehammer to Utah’s eggshell playoff chances.
Utah flew home with the same record as surging Dallas (34-36) and smarting from allowing a 69-69 tie midway through the third quarter to quickly become a 20-point stomping before a fruitless late rally made it look more respectable. The Jazz allowed the Mavs’ starting point guard, 37-year-old D-League call-up Mike James, to to kill them with 19 points and five assists. He averages 5.6 and 2.7.
Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin could only shake his head
So eight-of-12 is now something of a rallying cry.
“It has to be, it has to be now,” befuddled Corbin said.
Since the Feb. 21 trade deadline, when either Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap or maybe even both impending free agents figured to be moved to make way for developing big men Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, the Jazz are 3-12.
It’s been almost a reverse effect. Instead of the anxieties and stresses applied by the approaching deadline sabotaging their effort and focus, the Jazz thrived, claiming wins against Miami, Indiana, Oklahoma City and Golden State during that 16-7 stretch from the start of January to the trade deadline.
They even came out of the All-Star break with a 115-101 dismantling of the Warriors 48 hours prior to the deadline.
When management left the team alone to build on a 31-24 record, they’ve flopped. There hasn’t been a road win since Feb. 12 at Minnesota, and Boston, Atlanta and New York have all walked out of Salt Lake City victorious.
Jefferson said the club’s demise and the timing of the trade deadline is merely coincidence, and Millsap didn’t disagree.
“I don’t know, I think everybody’s out there playing their best just like before the trade deadline everybody was out there putting it all on the line,” Millsap said. “This stretch we’ve had a lot of tough breaks, things just didn’t go our way. But we’re not counting ourselves out. We’ve still got a chance.”
Millsap, the Jazz’s elder statesman in his seventh season with the team that shrewdly drafted him 47th overall, said the locker room hasn’t fractured, that the players remain committed to Corbin.
“Absolutely,” he said.
Corbin, however, acknowledged the difficulties he’s had in trying to maximize a roster with four frontcourt players, two proven vets and a couple of emerging, developing talents that all want, and often deserve, the same minutes.
Those complexities were on display Sunday. Jefferson and Millsap, earning a combined $23.6 million this season, both played 28 minutes and combined for 30 points (15 apiece), 12 rebounds (nine from Millsap), three blocks and three steals. Favors played 16 minutes and Kanter logged 21 and totaled 24 points (17 from Kanter on 7-for-9 shooting) and nine rebounds with a couple of steals. Those two earn nearly a third of the guys playing ahead of them.
“It’s a challenge,” Corbin said of working his rotation. “But we’ve been in it for a couple years now, so it is where we are and it is who we are. We’ve got young guys we want to try and develop as we play our veteran guys to try and have a chance to win and be competitive now at the same time. Mix that in with the free agents we have on this team; it’s a lot to juggle, but it is where we are, and the guys have been tremendous about just coming out and playing.”
Only it just isn’t working. When the Jazz were 31-24 on Feb. 21, they were seventh in the West, ahead of the Rockets and five games ahead of the Lakers, the team they now trail by two full games for the eighth and final playoff spot. Dallas was six games back. For added perspective of the Jazz’s long, steady slide to 34-36, the Heat were just six games into their 26-game winning streak.
“You can talk a good game, you can say all the things you need to do, but we’re the ones out there,” Jefferson said. “Coach can only prepare you for so much, he can’t play the game for you, so we’re the ones out there and we’re the ones that have to do it. That’s what it comes down to, we have to do it.”
Monday night begins eight of 12. Eight of 12 that will decide the Jazz’s fate.