Over the past two weeks, the Western playoff hunt has gone from a five-team chase for the last three spots to a two-team chase for the eighth spot. Thankfully (eat your heart out, tankers), the Jazz are one of them, with only the Phoenix Suns standing in the way of postseason bliss (and by “bliss” I mean a very entertaining five-game series with a few fleeting moments of memorable fight). Of all the teams to be pitted against in a battle of wills, Phoenix seems like the natural choice. After all, they are the anti-Jazz in every conceivable way. For the Suns, this is one final blaze of glory to commemorate their dynasty of style on the eve of its downfall. For the Jazz, this is a golden opportunity to show the world that a future contender is already on the horizon.
For Jazz fans with decent memories–or possibly a poor capacity for coping–the poetic irony in all of this is not hard to see. It wasn’t so long ago that Steve Nash’s young and promising Dallas Mavericks dismissed the Jazz from the playoffs in 2001 after resiliently overcoming a 2-0 series deficit for Utah’s first first-round exit since 1995. For me, that might have been the most devastating defeat of my entire fandom. After the 1998 Finals I was crushed, but confident my guys would win the following year. In 2001, it was inescapably clear to everyone watching that the window of opportunity had closed for the Stockton-Malone era and sure enough, they never won another playoff series together. As painful as it was, even then I recognized that Dallas had a certain hopeful fire and relentlessness that the Jazz simply couldn’t match. That Mavs team is much less repugnant in hindsight, knowing the price they would pay to finally get their title. I’m sure that Suns fans (or Rockets fans; especially Rockets fans) find the Jazz to be similarly detestable right now. After all, this collection of players dominantly in their 20s, without any individual claims to significant NBA success, shows an astounding amount of entitlement in their expectation to reach the postseason. This, too, will likely be more forgivable a few years down the road.
The problem for the 2001 Jazz and, by association, the 2012 Suns, is that Dallas should have won that first-round series. History suggests that energetic, hopeful up-and-comers generally deserve the win over the past-their-prime giants. It’s a sad reality, but only in the short-term view of things. Of course I hate the way Apollo Creed’s storyline ended in Rocky IV as much as everyone else, and generally I want my heroes to have their dramatic ride into the sunset, but the Local Natives are right when they sing (in a music video that should really have more than 34K views) that “the bad feels so bad to make the good so good.”
That’s why the Jazz are going to make the playoffs. Time always pushes the envelope, and it’s flying toward the era when Phoenix pays its cyclical dues before becoming relevant again. It’s also pushing toward that future moment when Utah is recognized for what it fundamentally is- a fresh, synergized, and legitimate challenger to the NBA throne.