The Jazz clinched the final playoff spot in the West on Tuesday, and knocked the Suns out of the postseason picture at the same time. In a game that was essentially a must-win for both teams if they were to keep their playoff hopes alive, Utah was too tough at home, especially inside, and were able to pull away for a 100-88 victory over a Phoenix team that was missing two of its starters, and largely overachieved in the second half of the season to even make it this far.
Paul Millsap did the heavy lifting for the Jazz, and finished with 26 points and 15 rebounds. Al Jefferson was huge down the stretch, scoring eight straight points that pushed a five-point lead to 13 with just over two minutes to play. He finished with 18 points and 16 rebounds, and Derrick Favors added 13 and 11 in 29 minutes off the bench.
Utah’s bigs made things extremely difficult for Suns center Marcin Gortat, who is used to scoring at the rim off of pick-and-roll feeds from Steve Nash. While the opportunities were there, the shots were challenged or blocked to the point where Gortat finished just 1-of-8 from the field with two points.
The Jazz seemed poised to put this game away earlier than they actually did, but a couple of scoring droughts, along with the competent play of the Suns’ bench unit behind decent performances from Sebastian Telfair, Michael Redd, and even Hakim Warrick kept things within reach for Phoenix.
Without Channing Frye, though, who was out with a dislocated shoulder, the usual spacing wasn’t where it needed to be for Nash to be able to do what he does in setting up his teammates for easy looks. As a result, the Suns offense couldn’t keep up with the repeated easy baskets Utah was able to get inside — the Jazz outscored Phoenix 50-40 in points in the paint, although it didn’t seem nearly that close.
At the end of the night — and the season — the Jazz deserved to get that final playoff spot more than the Suns. Phoenix gave it everything it had in coming from six games under .500 at the All-Star break to have this chance, but injuries and perhaps age caught up to the team and they simply didn’t have enough left in the tank to beat Utah in their building with a playoff spot on the line.
While Phoenix stumbled to the season’s finish line losing six of its last 11 games, Utah has won four in a row, and six of its last eight. That’s how you close a season out, and that’s how you find yourself having earned a spot in the playoffs.