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Eliminated! Jazz loss, Nuggets win mean no postseason

SHARE Eliminated! Jazz loss, Nuggets win mean no postseason

MINNEAPOLIS — As Jerry Sloan spoke, the Jazz coach was uncertain how fate would treat his club's rapidly diminishing playoff hopes.

Yet desperation could be heard, the inevitable seemingly sensed, a crack in his voice the clue to just how frustrated he felt.

"If you think I like to lose, you've got the wrong person," Sloan said. "I'm not into losing.

"I've had too many battles to fight this year," he added, "to step out there and say this is easy. "

Sloan, his wife Bobbye waging a brave war against pancreatic cancer, had just watched his Jazz lose their second-to-last game of the season, falling 104-90 Monday night to the NBA's Western Conference-leading Minnesota Timberwolves.

An hour or so later — the Jazz en route to the airport for a long, lonely flight back to Utah — the reality of elimination hit.

Denver beat Sacramento 97-89, giving the 43-38 Nuggets — who own tiebreaker rights over Utah because of a 3-1 season-series edge — a playoff berth even if they lose their regular-season finale against San Antonio and the now 42-39 Jazz win theirs against Phoenix.

In their first season without future hall-of-famers John Stockton and Karl Malone, the Jazz's streak of consecutive postseason appearances ends at 20 — on the same night, it turns out, that Portland's record-streak of 21 ended as well.

"If we don't make the playoffs," Jazz forward Tom Gugliotta said before knowing for certain they would not, "then this is definitely not the way to go out, because we know we didn't play that well."

The Jazz found themselves down by as many as 23 in the second quarter, an indicator Sloan might have been right when he sensed at the team's morning shootaround that not every head was where it ought to be.

"They really weren't interested," he said, "in playing the game to start with."

To a man, Jazz players denied that was the case.

"I was ready for this game," All-Star forward Andrei Kirilenko said.

"I think we were ready," starting shooting guard Gordan Giricek added, "but there is a reason why Minnesota is best in the West."

MVP candidate Kevin Garnett, who finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds, is one. Latrell Sprewell, whose game-high 24 were even more of a dagger, is another.

But Sloan is not buying the argument that the Timberwolves — whom the Jazz beat twice in November — are so good they could not have been overcome.

"A team like this that's very, very talented to begin with — you better come with all barrels focussed on what you're trying to do," he said. "And they took us out of a lot of that. But that's where you have to be strong enough mentally to stay with what you're doing — and we weren't strong enough.

"To me, we didn't have the fight in us to want to fight," Sloan added. "We just accepted it. And that's a tough sign."

The Jazz, mostly because of the play of its bench, did make a run at the 'Wolves late in the third quarter and early in the fourth.

When reserve big man Michael Ruffin dunked home starting point guard Carlos Arroyo's lob pass with eight minutes and 23 seconds remaining, in fact, the Minnesota lead stood at just eight, 79-71.

But then Sprewell knocked down a trey from the left corner, Raja Bell had a shot rim out and Sprewell — after Arroyo made a free-throw stemming from a technical on Sprewell — hit a couple of his own from the line, both resulting from a flagrant foul on Bell.

With that, Minnesota — which needs one more win to clinch top seed in the West — was up 84-72, and the Jazz's dream of showing everyone they could make it even without Stockton and Malone was down the drain.

"It's very disappointing, because I think us, as a team — we have busted our butt to be in the position that we are at at this point," Arroyo said before Denver's berth-clinching win over Sacramento was complete. "And because of a tiebreaker . . . that's very disappointing.

"Next time," the Jazz point guard added, "we understand that a lot better, and understand that every play counts in every game."

Next time, Sloan hopes his club shows up to a game as huge as Monday's acting more as if it was interested in actually winning.

"This one was important," he said, "because this was a big game young guys have to learn to play in. And we kind of stubbed our toe."

Sloan seemed particularly disappointed in Kirilenko, who scored 16 — but sat on the bench during the early fourth-quarter comeback attempt.

"Andrei didn't know where he was, in some cases, as to what we were doing offensively, what we were doing defensively," he said. "He just hung out and took shots. But he wasn't the only guy that did that.

"You can't get that lost on a basketball floor. It's only 94 feet," Sloan added. "There should be some way to find yourself out there, and find out what's going on. If you have your mind on it."

Kirilenko insisted he did, as he did all of his teammates.

"We played to win," Arroyo said.

"All guys wanted to win here, because it was important for the playoffs," Giricek added. "Guys for sure wanted victory. No doubt."

Except in the mind of one very flustered coach.

"I'm disappointed because we couldn't put up more of a fight against this great team," Sloan said. "They're a wonderful team. They're a great-coached team. They have everything going for them.

"And I'm happy for them — because they stood in there through some tough times, and they're fighting back."

Unlike, Sloan seemed to think, his own team.

But much like, he could only imagine, those facing much bigger battles must.

E-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com