Writer's note: Being the Utah Jazz beat writer for the Deseret News was my identity for almost a decade from 2008 to 2017. It was a source of deep pride on personal and professional levels. This franchise has had a lot of colorful characters and interesting moments, and I had the honor to tell and retell stories about a team that means so much to the people and a state I love so much. The following excerpt from my book, "100 Things Jazz Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die," is presented with permission from Triumph Books. This is the second of three excerpts.
2007: An Unexpected Run
Nobody knew what to expect from the Utah Jazz heading into the 2006–07 season. They had talent with Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, Andrei Kirilenko, Mehmet Okur, Matt Harpring and Derek Fisher. Nobody doubted that. But they also had consistency and injury issues, which led to a 41–41 record the previous season.
They’d missed the playoffs three years in a row, which was new territory for Jerry Sloan. Those concerns led six of 10 ESPN basketball experts to predict a fourth straight spring without a postseason appearance. Former NBA player Greg Anthony admitted, “I don’t see this being a playoff team.”
It didn’t even take a full month for naysayers to be quieted. The Jazz reeled off wins in 12 of 13 games for the best start in franchise history — and November Coach of the Month honors for Sloan — to set the stage for a 51-win season. Boozer (20.9 points per game, 11.7 rebounds per game) and Okur (17.6 points per game, 129 three-pointers) were named All-Stars, and Williams gave the franchise hope it had finally found the next John Stockton by averaging 16.2 points and 9.3 assists while showing a fiery, competitive spirit and explosiveness.
Back in the playoffs, the Jazz met up with an old postseason rival — the #%&@ Houston Rockets — in the first round. Utah hadn’t won a playoff series since the Big Three advanced to the second round in their last playoff push together in 2000. It didn’t appear this would be when that six-year drought would end.
Yao Ming scored 28 and Tracy McGrady exploded for 22 second-half points — after scoring only one in the first half — to lead the No. 4 seed Rockets to an 84–75 Game 1 win in Houston. The biggest news after that game was Kirilenko’s teary-eyed meltdown at practice because of his diminished role. Boozer’s 41 points in Game 2 weren’t enough to overcome another big outing by McGrady (31) and Ming (27) in a 98–90 Rockets victory, giving Houston a 2–0 lead heading to Utah. But the Jazz had played hard in the losses, so they were confident. “If we can get one,” Williams said, “then we can build on that.” McGrady, who hadn’t gotten past the first round in five tries, wasn’t making second-round plans yet: “This team is not going to let us relax.”
True words by both players. The Jazz defense stymied Houston in Game 3, winning 81–67, and D-Will scored 11 of his 25 in the decisive third quarter of a 98–85 Game 4 victory. The two teams held serve on their home courts in the next two games, leading to a Game 7 at the Toyota Center. The Jazz defied the home-court odds, recovering after blowing a 16-point lead to clinch the series 4–3 with a thrilling 103–99 victory. Utah’s hustle on the offensive glass led to a critical three by Okur and two free throws for Boozer in the waning moments. AK-47 then caused some tears in Houston by salting the win with clinching free throws in the final seconds.
While Utah advanced past the first round for the first time since eliminating the Seattle SuperSonics 3–2 in 2000, it was the first time the Rockets failed to make the conference semifinals since 1997. McGrady’s much-publicized first-round exit streak reached six. “To win Game 7 on the road in a hostile environment, when they came back and grabbed the lead from us — we grew up a lot in this series,” Boozer said. “And it’s going to help us in the next series.”
Fortunately for the Jazz, they faced the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors (42–40) instead of the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks (67–15) after the Warriors pulled off the greatest playoff upset in NBA history, stunning the Mavericks 4–2.
Utah accepted the gift and took the conference semifinal series in five games, but the outcome was overshadowed by two events. The Warriors faithful will never forget 6-3 Baron Davis soaring over the 6-9 Kirilenko for a massive posterization dunk in Golden State’s only win. And though Jazz fans soured on him that summer, Derek Fisher entering the arena to a hero’s welcome in the third quarter — after making a cross-country trip following his baby daughter’s eye-cancer surgery in New York earlier in the day — and then hitting a key three-pointer in a Game 2 overtime win remains an all-time great sports moment.
The next series against the San Antonio Spurs was miserable for the Jazz, who’d been a spur in San Antonio’s heel in the 1990s-era playoffs with three series wins. “We had a pretty successful run in the playoffs,” Williams said. “It got cut short by a better team.”
For more information and to order a copy, please visit www.triumphbooks.com/100jazz. Also available at_ Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble stores and barnesandnoble.com, Utah Costcos and TheKing's English Bookshop _in Salt Lake City (signed copies).