Shaken Jazz center Al Jefferson again playing biggest game of career
By Brian T. Smith
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published May 04 2012 07:46PM
Hours after the Jazz held off Phoenix on April 24 to clinch a Western Conference playoff spot, Utah center Al Jefferson finally found meaning.
As late evening turned to black night, Jefferson relaxed on a couch inside his home and stared at a wall. Pictures and posters were plastered, documenting eight years of unpredictable NBA life.
His early rise and plateau in Boston. Three lost, depressing, defeat-filled seasons in Minnesota. A second chance with the Jazz — nearly derailed by Jerry Sloan’s sudden resignation and the shocking trade of Deron Williams. Jefferson’s beloved grandmother watching it all, then leaving the earth at the same time the man she raised was playing the best basketball of his career.
Jefferson was flooded with thoughts and emotions. He embraced the moment, enjoyed the solitude and let everything sweep over him.
"To do it with this team, going against all odds, it just meant a lot," Jefferson said April 25, reflecting on his postgame epiphany. "Especially the idea that my grandmother wasn’t here with me. Because I think it was just as bad for her to have to sit there and watch all of it for the last seven years. It meant a lot to finally get in the playoffs and just do it with this group of guys. It was a wonderful feeling."
That feeling abruptly ended five days later. The Jazz were humbled 106-91 in a Game 1 defeat at San Antonio during a best-of-seven first-round series. Utah was then hollowed out Wednesday, punched in the gut and embarrassed on national television while being blown out 114-83 by the Spurs in Game 2.
Now, Jefferson will again play the biggest game of his career.
He’s only 11 days removed from carrying the Jazz into the playoffs, teaming with players Paul Millsap, Devin Harris, Gordon Hayward and coach Tyrone Corbin to form a resilient group that refused to give in to low expectations.
But Jefferson’s world shattered as soon as the postseason changed from longed-for dream to cold reality. Utah’s been exposed, everything from Jefferson’s confidence to his offensive game have shrunk, and the center who carried the Jazz through a chaotic lockout-shortened season sounded lost and beat down Friday before practice.
Jefferson spoke quietly and slowly. His shoulders were slumped, his head was bowed and his eyes were turned downward. If body language won or lost games, Utah’s already dropped Game 3.
While Corbin said this is a perfect moment to see who’ll fight or quit, the Jazz’s leading average scorer and rebounder during the regular season acknowledged he’s been significantly shaken by his first playoff appearance since 2005.
"San Antonio knows our plays better than we do," Jefferson said.
He wasn’t exaggerating. The Spurs have expertly played the talented but at times one-dimensional Utah center, forcing him away from his sweet spots while sending a variety of defenders from varying locations at different times during the shot clock.
"We’ve got the freedom to sometimes double team, sometimes not," San Antonio power forward Boris Diaw said. "That makes it harder because they never know what we’re going to do, and that’s what we try to do."
Jefferson said he’s worked too hard to gain an initial advantage against Spurs center Tim Duncan. Then he’s allowed himself to be taken out of games during moments when the Jazz have needed him most.
"I know I can be better than what I’ve been," Jefferson said. [I’ve been] just a little more frustrated, too, just with the way everything’s been going on. The way we’ve been playing and the way things are kind of unraveling as a team."
Utah needs its $14 million man more than ever. Jefferson dug in last summer during the NBA lockout, waking with the sunrise to add increased speed, lateral movement and agility. He dropped in 28 points and tied a career high with 26 rebounds April 16 during the Jazz’s 123-121 triple-overtime victory against Dallas. He played through injuries, off nights and personal heartbreak this season to finally return to the playoffs. Now, Jefferson has at least two games left against the Spurs to regain some semblance of his ‘wonderful feeling.’
"You’ve got to block things out and keep going," he said. "We’ve still got life. I’ve seen many teams come back being down 2-0. We’ve just got to be ready and be sure to get [our minds] together."