Jazz get a feel for battle during bid for postseason play

Apr 7 2012 - 4:54pm

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Meaningful games.

Sounds like the latest best-selling young adult book series (and soon-to-be blockbuster movie), doesn't it?

Maybe someday, but for now it's what the Utah Jazz are playing here in the month of April.

Meaningful games.

Going into tonight's brutally tough matchup at San Antonio, the Jazz are still in the hunt for the playoffs. With 10 games left, they're fighting with Houston, Denver and Phoenix for the last two spots in the Western Conference postseason bracket.

This, of course, is a far cry from April 2011, when players were so beaten down by an awful season, they couldn't wait to get out of town. Shoot, there were moments you'd swear you could hear soft, reverent organ music playing inside the locker room.

Sad? We may never really know how sad. The players who suffered through it don't like to talk about it, but given what this April is like compared to a year ago, playing meaningful games is a meaningful experience.

Last week, minutes after his potential game-winning basket against Phoenix was ruled a split-second too late, veteran Paul Millsap said that even though the Jazz lost the game, feeling the pressure to win was great for his younger teammates.

"It lets them know what's really going on," he said. "Every game counts, from the beginning of the season until the end is very crucial."

After losing to Phoenix last Wednesday, the Jazz bounced back and earned a victory over Golden State on Friday. Granted, the Warriors aren't much of a threat and the Jazz probably should never have let the game get close. But even so, it was a game they needed to win in order to keep their postseason hopes alive.

Rather than going through the motions, which often seemed to be the case late last season, Utah's players forced themselves to stay focused and fight through fatigue, illness and injury.

No, these technically aren't playoff games and, frankly, there's no way to simulate the nail-biting intensity of a postseason contest. But for these guys who make millions running around in shorts and sneakers, meaningful competition sometimes seems more important than money.

Consequently, when there's something on the line -- like a playoff spot -- picks are set with a little more toughness, rebounds are grabbed with more force, and the sound of the net snapping after a made jump shot is that much sweeter.

"We've got to make sure everything's going right for us," coach Tyrone Corbin said. "The guys are giving great effort but we can't afford to not take advantage of the situation."

Early in his career, Jazzman C.J. Miles played on a team that won the Northwest Division by six games. Down the stretch, then-coach Jerry Sloan still insisted on playing his guys meaningful minutes so they wouldn't get too rusty before the playoffs.

But the games they played in April were just that ... games. They weren't the battles normally reserved for the postseason.

Last week, after the tough loss to Phoenix, Miles looked around the locker room and thought of his younger teammates, the rookies and second-year guys.

"It's almost like, with these games, it'll make that (playoff) atmosphere a little bit easier to take in," he said. "Every game (is like a playoff game). They're going to get their enjoyment from it, but it gives you that sense of urgency and importance."

Last year at this time, "urgency" meant leaving the locker room as quickly as possible after another loss. And "importance" meant being careful not to get hurt at the end of a meaningless game.

This year those words mean so much more.

"I remember we had a pretty good record (at the end of the 2006-07 season) so we knew we were going to make the playoffs," Miles said. "And the first time I actually played in (a playoff game) it was a totally different game."

Will the Jazz hold on and make the playoffs this year? Who knows? Your guess is as good as mine.

But one thing's for certain: Whenever that first playoff games comes, youngsters like Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter will already know what a meaningful game feels like.

Jim Burton is the Standard-Examiner's sports columnist. He can be reached at 801-625-4265 or at jburton@standard.net. He tweets at http://twitter.com/jmb247

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