SALT LAKE CITY — This is how you want the regular season to end: With a yawn.
Having secured a playoff spot with a win on Tuesday, the Jazz's Thursday game against Portland was a mere dress rehearsal. Consequently, Jazz fans weren't all that worried about the outcome. Their favorite team now awaits Sunday's playoff meeting with San Antonio. Although nobody in Los Angeles, Chicago or Miami will be terribly impressed by that, it's big news in Utah. It means those young players are figuring things out. It says the franchise has a future.
Playoff basketball is something fans can once again anticipate.
That doesn't mean millions are expecting the Jazz to thrive in this year's postseason. They're here on hall pass, so to speak. Still, for the first time since the days of Jeff Hornacek, John Stockton and Karl Malone, Utah fans have a team they can embrace.
Everyone loves a puppy.
The Jazz did a fine job of avoiding a meltdown after the Hall of Famers retired. They bridged the chasm by elevating Andrei Kirilenko to status of Best Player Left Standing. They even had a winning record the first year without their stars.
Soon to follow were the arrivals of Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams, producing mostly respectable teams; one (2007) even made the Western Conference Finals.
At the same time, those Boozer-Williams teams were hard to love. Williams was tough and talented, but both he and Boozer were opaque when it came to their feelings for the franchise and city. They seemed more interested in the next big leap than making it work in Utah.
Aside from that, everyone knew the Jazz's ceiling. They were going to make the playoffs and lose to the Lakers. It took the fun out of wondering.
There's something about the mystery that makes this year's Jazz more interesting than any since they were in the Finals in 1997-98. In some ways, the current Jazz are even more intriguing than the 1990s teams. While those groups were successful, and certainly efficient, they tended to be mechanical. Stockton would work the angles and dump the ball to Malone, who would then barrel over a double-team, and maybe a vending cart or Coke machine, on his way to a basket.
If things got really interesting, they'd huck the ball back to Hornacek for a 3.
But fans seldom saw anything as unexpected as Derrick Favors' spinning baseline dunk last Saturday against Orlando, or his five first-half blocks against Phoenix on Tuesday. The Jazz teams of the early 2000s definitely lacked rookies who looked gifted enough to become All-Stars.
This year's Jazz are interesting, whether it's Jamaal Tinsley and Josh Howard resurrecting their careers, or Favors and Gordon Hayward beginning theirs. It's compelling to see Alec Burks not even trying to hide his ambition and Enes Kanter scattering bodies like bowling pins. It's entertaining to see Al Jefferson, in all his emotional swings, making quirky one-handed jump-hooks in the clutch and Devin Harris — Utah's most-maligned player — finally spurring the offense. You wonder: How good will these guys get?
They keep you peeking, even when you're tempted to look away.
In 2010, I wrote that the Boozer-Williams team was hard to like. That elicited a letter to the editor from Sen. Orrin Hatch — and others — who disagreed. As it turned out, the Jazz shocked Denver in the first round of the playoffs.
Still, that didn't necessarily make them likable.
This team is a different deal. There's something about watching kids grow up and grown-ups mature. It's hard not to like DeMarre Carroll, who was out of work 21/2 months ago but is now starting for the Jazz; Paul Millsap who, just like Malone, finds something to improve every season; Hayward, who's biggest fault is that he's too unselfish. Plus, it has a coach who, just like his players, is starting to find himself.
It doesn't hurt to have the NBA dunk champion (Jeremy Evans) around for style points, either.
This year's team blocks shots, dunks and celebrates better than any Jazz team in a decade or more. That's why the crowd on Tuesday at EnergySolutions Arena was on its feet most of the night, screaming its lungs out for an eighth-place team.
The 2012 Jazz aren't yet as good as the Boozer-Williams teams, but they're a whole lot more appealing. Why? It seems when players get truly interested, the fans will interest them right back.