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The Early Lead
Posted at 10:32 AM ET, 04/25/2012

Utah Jazz beats Suns to nail down final playoff spot


Al Jefferson and the Jazz are back in the playoffs. (Jim Urquhart - AP)
When the Utah Jazz missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 2006, it triggered a full-on rebuilding process.

The team cleaned house, trading star point guard Deron Williams and its two longest-tenured players, Mehmet Okur and Andrei Kirilenko, with an eye toward the future.

Now that future is upon the Jazz — much sooner than anyone could have anticipated.

The Jazz ensured their postseason hiatus would be a brief one on Tuesday night when they toppled Phoenix 100-88 to secure the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference playoffs.

Forward Paul Milsap scored 26 points and added 15 rebounds and center Al Jefferson had 18 points and 16 rebounds as the Jazz took advantage of a serious size advantage up front to dominate the paint.

“It’s good to make people eat their words,” Jefferson said. “That’s what we did. Now it’s time to go and shock the world.”

Over the last few weeks, Utah’s front court trio of Jefferson, Milsap and second-year forward Derrick Favors — all of whom are 27 or younger — have become the driving force for the team’s playoff push. And against a Suns team missing center Channing Frye and with an injured Grant Hill, they continued to produce. Favors added 13 points and 11 boards as the Jazz out-rebounded Phoenix 56-42 including a 14-6 edge on the offensive glass.

Second-year shooting guard Gordon Hayward chipped in 11 points and eight assists for a team whose rotation has become considerably younger with injuries to Raja Bell and Josh Howard.


Is this the end of Steve Nash the Sun? (Jim Urquhart - AP)
Now the young Jazz will face either the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs — the NBA’s oldest team — or the talented Oklahoma City Hornets in the first round of the playoffs.

Tuesday’s result could also signal the end of an era in Phoenix where Steve Nash will play what could be his final game in a Suns uniform tonight in the team’s season finale. He will become a free agent this summer and has said he will pursue a three-year contract. Nash, 38, was drafted by the Suns in 1996 and after a six-year stint in Dallas, has been in Phoenix for the last eight seasons.

“Phoenix feels like my team,” the two-time MVP told the Associated Press after the game. “It has the feel — and you don’t always get it in professional sports — but it feels like a high school or college team. I spent so many years here and had so much success here. It’s a special place for me, no question.”

As for the Jazz, they went 1-2 against the Thunder and 1-2 against the Spurs this season with the one win coming with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli all resting. But Utah hadn’t beaten Phoenix in its previous seven matchups before Tuesday, and in the playoffs stranger things have happened.

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By  |  10:32 AM ET, 04/25/2012

 
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