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Analysis: Jazz return to playoffs by doing it their way

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Atlanta Hawks' Jason Collins (34) defends the ball from Utah Jazz's Enes Kanter, rear, and DeMarre Carroll, right, during the second quarter of an NBA basketball game Sunday, March 25, 2012, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

By Brian T. Smith

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Apr 25 2012 07:54PM
Updated Apr 26, 2012 05:26PM

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not this fast. Not with this roster. Not this way.

But the Jazz have rarely been orthodox.

Utah spent nearly 20 years racking up 50-win seasons and endless playoff appearances riding two players, one coach and unwavering small-market stability.

John Stockton and Karl Malone are long gone, though. And when the Jazz cleaned out the final remnants of the Larry H. Miller era in February 2011, watching ex-coach Jerry Sloan walk away and shipping All-Star guard Deron Williams to New Jersey, lost years devoted to rebuilding and lottery picks were instantly predicted.

Except the Jazz never fully rebuilt. And now Utah’s back in the playoffs. One game away from closing down a better-than-expected lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. A few days away from taking on San Antonio in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.

Bucking the trend

How did the Jazz get here? How did Utah defy critics and ignore low-ballers? How did second-year coach Tyrone Corbin, longtime general manager Kevin O’Connor and a roster filled with second-tier stars, castoff veterans and four players 22 or younger not just survive a 66-game marathon, but ace it?

By doing what the Jazz, at their best, always do: be different.

The NBA’s gone small. Utah went big.

The league bows down to superstars, egos, entourages and prima donnas. The Jazz dealt face-of-the-franchise D-Will ahead of schedule, then accepted the consequences.

The Association prizes specialists defined by one basketball trait; raw athletes with tremendous upside. An organization that continues to do things its own way pieced together a mix-and-match 15-man crew composed of afterthoughts, reclamation projects and talented but imperfect players who willingly sacrificed minutes, points and fantasy statistics for old-fashioned victories.

Jamaal Tinsley, Josh Howard, DeMarre Carroll and Blake Ahearn don’t exactly sound like playoff basketball. They don’t sound like Jazz basketball, either. But neither did Al Jefferson for seven years of non-postseason misery. Same for Devin Harris, whose career was trashed in New Jersey and bottomed out during the first two months of 2011-12 in Salt Lake City. Heavily debated lottery picks Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks? O’Connor and Corbin made everything work. And they did it by bucking trends, ignoring experts and swearing by what they know best: basketball.

"I don’t ever want to sound like, ‘I told you so.’ But at the beginning of the year, we talked about [this] not being a rebuilding year," O’Connor said Wednesday at the Jazz practice facility. "I thought Al and Devin and Paul [Millsap] could carry us through. And I thought the young kids could bounce back and play a little bit better than they did a year ago. … We just felt we were better than everyone else thought we were, and it’s nice to come out of that."

Lockout rollercoaster

The playoff-bound Jazz almost never emerged. Utah was blown out by 42 points during its first two games of the season, watched a surprising 12-7 start disappear into a 15-18 post-All-Star break haze, and dealt with injuries to starters Raja Bell and Howard during the middle of a six-game winning streak.

Between the 0-2 egg and 35-30 mountain: Bell went toe-to-toe with Corbin and was put down; Earl Watson and C.J. Miles were lost for the season; the Jazz watched the longest game in franchise history end in a quadruple-overtime heartbreaker; Utah dropped eight of 13 from March 25 to April 14, while playoff contenders Houston and Phoenix gained ground.

The Jazz outlasted everything, and they did it all without an All-Star.

Utah’s Big Four of Millsap, Favors, Jefferson and Kanter was huge. Harris’ late-season resurgence, Hayward’s thrilling ascension and one of the deepest rosters in the NBA — a lineup O’Connor specifically assembled with a lockout-compressed schedule in mind — pushed the Jazz over the top.

But by the time a joyous "Playoffs" chant roared through EnergySolutions Arena late Tuesday night and the Corbin era earned its first true separation from the Sloan era, Utah’s intangibles had made the real difference.

All in

The Jazz bought in. They never fractured. They dispensed with egos and the lazy allure of guaranteed contracts and simply went to work. Jefferson and Millsap — the heart and soul of Jazzland — talked about players learning and accepting their roles. The team was proud to play for Corbin. And fans burned out or turned off by Carlos Boozer and Williams found 15 gritty players with more than a little Stockton and Malone in their blood.

"We made it and we made it together. No one person did it. It was all of us," Jefferson said. "From the coaching staff to the trainers … to the players to the ball boys. Everybody had a part of this and everybody helped get us to this point. As long as we stick together as a team and as a family, the sky’s the limit."

And the team that was supposed to fail has brought playoff basketball back to Salt Lake City, barely missing a beat.

bsmith@sltrib.com

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