The stakes could not have been higher in the regular season matchup between the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns on Tuesday. A patchwork Phoenix squad played for its playoff life in a must-win game, but Utah ultimately punched the final ticket for the 2012 NBA Playoffs with a 100-88 win in Salt Lake City. The Suns played without Channing Frye (shoulder) and Grant Hill -- who left after just 2:43 due to his lingering knee injury -- so once again the load heaped onto Steve Nash, Jared Dudley, Marcin Gortat and a cast of lesser role players. They fought hard to stay within striking distance and even grabbed a one-point lead with 10 minutes to play, but Utah's massive lineup of Devin Harris, Gordon Hayward, Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors and Al Jefferson engineered a decisive 18-5 run over the next eight minutes and earned an ovation from the home crowd delighted by the playoff berth.
Before Jazz fans felt any jubilation, the Suns made them sweat it out for most of the night. Grant Hill gave it a go, but after an 0-3 start from the field and a clear lack of burst, he moved to the bench for good and watched Nash, Shannon Brown, Dudley and Michael Redd go to work. While Gortat stumbled out to a 1-7 start against Utah's seemingly endless supply of big man in the first 36 minutes, Nash, Brown, Dudley and Redd combined for 45 points on 54.8 percent accuracy over that same span. Unfortunately for Phoenix, Gortat went scoreless in the fourth period and the noted quartet only managed 11 points on 4-14 shooting down the stretch. Jazz bigs seized control of the game from there, and that's why the Suns have now missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1988.
That lack of progress and general failure to accomplish a playoff push is exactly why Steve Nash is keeping his options open heading into the offseason. Phoenix technically controlled its own destiny going into Tuesday night's game, but it didn't really look that way. Will Cantrell of SB Nation's Bright Side of the Sun captured the mood well in his recap:
Marcin Gortat missed all three of the shots he took in the lane, with two getting blocked by Derrick Favors. Things got uglier as Gortat was blocked two more times before the end of the half and given a reported "talking to" by Suns GM Lance Blanks who met him as he entered the locker room.
At the half the Suns were down seven, giving away nine turnovers, which led to 20 Jazz points while getting swatted by eight Jazz blocks. All that kept the Suns in the game were the three's by Shannon Brown and Michael Redd, along with Utah's 40 percent shooting.
...Gortat and Nash returned with six minutes left. But Gortat was as useless as he was in the first three quarters and was pulled with three minutes left after missing a layup and letting Al Jefferson spin by for an easy dunk. The Jazz went on a 10-2 run and the game was effectively over, even with the Suns finding themselves within [two].
Nash finished with 14 points and 11 assists while Dudley (15), Redd (15) and Brown (12) carried the scoring load, yet the veteran point guard simply needs more substantial help if he's to reach any meaningful goals in the near future. The Suns spent the second half of the season overachieving against modest expectations, but will Steve Nash sign up for another few years of playing under a glass ceiling? If not, Wednesday's meeting against the San Antonio Spurs would then mark his final home game as a member of the Suns.
As for the Jazz, things are looking up for now. They likely have no less than four matchups with the Spurs to look forward to now that San Antonio has clinched the top spot in the Western Conference. Utah's size is a serious asset heading into the post-season, too. On Tuesday, Al Jefferson (18 points, 16 rebounds), Paul Millsap (26 points, 15 rebounds) and Derrick Favors (13 points, 11 rebounds) all posted efficient and effective double-doubles that underpinned a 56-42 advantage on the glass and a 50-40 edge on points in the paint. Favors also matched his career-high with five blocks and Gordon Hayward tied his career-best with eight assists in the win.
The moment the playoff berth became official, it turned into an emotional scene for Al Jefferson, who hugged his coaches and teammates after finally making it back to the playoffs after missing out for the past six seasons :
"Seven long years, seven long years since I've been in the playoffs," Jefferson said. "It's a great opportunity. A lot of people counted us out. It's a great group of guys and everyone on our team deserves it."
"It's good to make people eat their words," Jefferson said of doubters who thought Utah was too young and inexperienced to reach postseason. "That's what we did. Now it's time to go and shock the world."
For all of Tuesday's NBA box scores, check out SI.com's NBA scoreboard.