April 15, 2011
Big Al's Big Incentive
by Eric Watkins . Big Al Jefferson
Wednesday night was a special night for the Utah Jazz and their fans.
Despite missing the playoffs for the sixth time in his seven-year career, that concept was not lost on Big Al Jefferson.
Big Al is anxious to peel the offseason off his calendar and get back to work (Getty Images).
After all, Jazz fans packed EnergySolutions Arena in a show of solidarity to their team. Utah responded in kind, ending the season on a high-note with a victory over the Denver Nuggets in their 82nd and final game of the year.
"We didn't look at it like a playoff game," Al said of Utah's 107-103 win. "We want to be in the playoffs. We don't want to settle for just make-believe. Our goal is to get to the playoffs. We (don't want) to get used to ending the season in April."
No. 25 finished the season with 1,528 points, but his final two might have been the most important. Big Al drained a hook shot to give the Jazz a 105-103 lead with just 35 seconds remaining.
After his basket, Al capped the game off with a huge play on defense. As JR Smith drove hard to the basket, trying to tie the score, Big Al stood strong in the lane and drew an offensive foul against Smith. As he stood up, Al pumped his fist in celebration letting out some pent up emotion. Gordon Hayward sank his free throws on the subsequent Jazz possession and Utah defeated playoff-bound Denver.
"It was exciting just to win the game for the fans and to see Gordon have a wonderful game," said Al of the rookie, who scored a career-high 34 points. "I feel a lot better at this time of the year going home because I know there's a bright future for us."
After the game, rather than retreating to the locker room to pack up and head home, Al and the Jazz remained on the court, showing the Utah fans their gratitude and tossing souvenirs into the stands.
"It was really important (to share a moment with the fans)," Jefferson said. "We've been through a lot, but at the same time they've been through a lot too. And they've been there to support us through the thick and thin."
The outpouring of support from the fans in game 82 was a surreal experience for Big Al, one documented by Brian T. Smith of the Salt Lake Tribune:
"The night before the Jazz boxed up and locked away the 2010-11 season, general manager Kevin O'Connor gathered together Utah's future.
Collecting Derrick Favors, Devin Harris and Al Jefferson at center court late Wednesday evening inside a raucous EnergySolutions Arena, O'Connor highlighted the possibilities.
He pointed out a rabid fanbase that was pleasantly "nuts," seats packed from the floor to the rafters, and an eardrum-popping standing ovation that screamed pure devotion. While confetti rained down and miniature basketballs were hurled like fastballs into the stands, O'Connor made his pitch: This is what it's like when we don't make the playoffs — just imagine the feeling you'll have when we do.
"Those guys appreciated that," said O'Connor, following exit interviews Thursday at ESA. "Going forward, that's something that's hopefully an incentive for them to use."
There were plenty of incentives for the Jazz to take into the offseason out of game 82.
Chief among them may have been the play of Al's teammate Gordon Hayward, as Steve Luhm of The Salt Lake Tribune noted:
"Playing with the poise, tenacity and confidence far beyond his 21 years, Hayward scored 14 of his 34 points in the fourth quarter Wednesday night to lead the Jazz past Denver."
Hayward's success was a culmination of his daring work-ethic and perseverance throughout the season.
"It's a tremendous night for him — to see him receive the rewards for all the work he's done all year," said coach Tyrone Corbin.
Hayward's effort didn't miss the eyes of Big Al either, and a dunk from young Gordon rocked the Jazz crowd out of their seats in the third quarter, as Jody Gennesy of the Deseret News documented:
"One of Hayward's dunks came after a nice pass from Al Jefferson. Hayward dumped the ball inside to Jefferson and then cut to the basket and finished. His slam and completion of a three-point play put the Jazz ahead 82-71 late in the third quarter.
"He had an unbelievable game, man," Jefferson said. "To see him catch it, dunk it and get an and-one ... I know it's going to be on (SportsCenter's) top 10."
Jefferson and Hayward teamed up again in the fourth quarter. This time, Big Al saw a wide-open Hayward standing in 3-point range, and the rookie made his last 3 of the game to give Utah a 99-97 lead with 3:40 remaining.
The Jazz season finale marked the second time in Big Al's career that he started all 82 games in a season.
No. 25 finished with his 37th double-double of the year (45 percent of all games played) as he dropped 17 points, racked up 10 rebounds and dished out three assists.
Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin only had eight players at his disposal Wednesday night as Raja Bell, Ronnie Price, C.J. Miles, and Kyrylo Fesenko did not play due to injury. So there was Al, in the last game of the season, logging another 33 minutes with nary a complaint.
The big man has worked hard to come all the way back from a knee injury that took away most of his season two years ago. He told the Salt Lake Tribune how proud he was of the accomplishment, as Brian T. Smith wrote:
Jefferson dealt with an anterior cruciate ligament injury and loss-filled seasons in Minnesota during recent years. His main goal this season was to be playing basketball in mid-April with the Jazz. That won't happen, with Utah out of the playoffs. But a personal goal was achieved, and it brought a smile to Big Al's face when the accomplishment was mentioned.
Jefferson started all 82 games for the Jazz this season, becoming the only player on Utah's roster to record the mark.
"I have injuries," Jefferson said. "But if I can play through them, if I can deal with them, I'm going to go."
Big Al admitted after all was said and done on the 2010-2011 season that what happened to the Jazz was nothing like he had envisioned when he came to Utah.
"It was a rollercoaster ride, you know, a rollercoaster ride — a lot of ups and downs," Jefferson said. "A lot of things that happened to this team in one year, teams go through in three or four years. We went through it all in one year."
But he also reiterated that hope is not lost:
"It's kind of like a bittersweet thing," Big Al said. "You know, it sucks 'cause the season over and no more basketball for right now. But it's good 'cause we can start working on what we need to, to get ready for next season. I'm just really looking forward for this training camp coming up."
Al said that the things he has seen in Utah — the positive signs, the fan support and the commitment from the front office — have him as excited now as the day he became a member of the Jazz family:
"Sometimes when I think about it too much, I get too excited," he told the Salt Lake Tribune. "Just to see the things that Gordon do, see the things that Derrick do, see the things that Jeremy do, [they] just got better and better … with all the other guys, I just think it's going to be something real special. That's why I'm so excited to get started again. What we got here and what Kevin [O'Connor] is going to continue to do, the sky's the limit."
"I think it's going to be scary. We can be that good."
Jazz GM Kevin O'Connor told the Standard Examiner that he was encouraged by Big Al's mindset in his exit interview on Thursday:
"He said, 'I feel it's our fault that we didn't win. I don't feel it's that we can't win,'" O'Connor said.
O'Connor said Jefferson compared the first half of the season, in which the Jazz won 27 games, to the second half, in which they won 12. Those first 27 games helped Jefferson see the kind of success the Jazz can have when things run smoothly.
"He said, 'I saw who we were (in the first half of the season),'" O'Connor said. "He gave us that answer, we didn't ask him."
No. 25 also puts a lot of stock in the idea that the Jazz will start anew next year without the clouds and doubts that haunted them for most of the second half this season:
"It will be a fresh turning point with coach, and we can start with the beginning," Jefferson said. "I'm really looking forward to it. That's kind of the upside. You're not going into the off-season thinking it's going to be like it was this year."
Al is going into this offseason dedicated to making himself better and getting into the best shape he can.
He plans to keep Salt Lake City as his home base while doing plenty of working out in Santa Barbara, California. He said coach Corbin drilled into he and his teammates that it was on them to stay healthy, fit and ready this offseason, as Brian T. Smith of the Salt Lake Tribune wrote:
"That right there is a big major part of it," said Jefferson, who plans to address his vertical leap and lateral movement during the offseason while working out with teammates at Peak Performance Project, a high-tech human laboratory in Santa Barbara, Calif.
"Everybody in shape. Everybody trusting each other," Jefferson said. "Everybody knowing what the other person is going to do. … I think Ty hit it on the nail, exactly what we [have] to do."
No. 25 knows that if the Jazz come back next season strong and healthy, they can be a force:
"There's always an adjustment," Jefferson said. "But if guys get back healthy ... and you don't know whatever changes are going to be made ... I'm not going to tell you the season went the way I wanted it to. I came here to get to the playoffs, and I still believe in my heart that's what we're gonna do.
"I think everything will be fine. That's why I'm not in panic mode," Jefferson said. "These months can't go by fast enough for me."
Big Al's Big Incentive | Athlete Newswire