DENVER — They spent 12 seasons as a trio — point guard John Stockton, power forward Karl Malone and coach Jerry Sloan — before finally getting where they wanted.

To the NBA Finals, that is.

And though the Utah Jazz didn't win it all in that 1996-97 season, or after returning to the Finals the next season, or for that matter in any of their 18 years together, there is something to be said for the power of longevity and continuity.

As Sloan recalls it all, he tells the tale with purpose and a point in mind.

"Look back at the history of our franchise, when we had Stockton and Malone," he said one night late last month. "By the time we made it to the Finals, people were telling us to get rid of them."

Flash forward to 2010, and Sloan, point guard Deron Williams and power forward Carlos Boozer have been together just five seasons.

When a postseason that begins Saturday night with Game 1 of the Jazz's first-round Western Conference series against the Denver Nuggets gets under way, there is an underlying sense this could be it for the triumvirate that's given Utah its best shot at a title since Stockton and Malone went their separate ways in the summer of 2003.

"We got to make the most of these opportunities," Williams said. "We don't know where Booz is going to be next year. We hope he's back with us, but we don't know."

Boozer will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and while there's been talk from both sides about the prospect of his returning for a seventh season or more with the Jazz, there's a perhaps much-likelier chance the two-time NBA All-Star's six-year run in Utah soon will be done.

"That's a possibility," Sloan said.

"We've lost guys before. ... We don't like to lose them. We like to keep them together," he added. "But I don't write the checks. My job is to try to coach who's here. Sometimes we have great players, and don't do a very good job. But that's our ambition."

It is, and that's why even after Boozer vowed last season he'd opt out of the final season of his current contract in Utah, and even after he changed his mind about that, and even after he talked openly about wanting to be traded to Chicago or Miami shortly after opting in, and even after Jazz ownership quietly questioned his commitment, and even after management pondered dealing him, Sloan stood firm in not only his willingness but also his desire to have him back.

The two met before the season began, clearing the air.

It was the first step toward a productive season indeed for the Jazz's leading scorer and rebounder, one in which he posted a career-high 55 double-doubles and — despite a well-chronicled injury history — missed just four games.

"We had a great conversation. It set the tone for the season," said Boozer, who missed the Jazz's regular-season finale — a loss to Phoenix that cost them homecourt advantage in a first-round series against the much-more-beatable Portland Trail Blazers — with a strained oblique muscle. "I told (Sloan) I was gonna play. He told me he was gonna coach, and that we'd leave everything else where it is.

"The summer was behind us," added Boozer, who didn't practice Friday but previously said the injury won't keep him out Saturday night. "I see you guys (reporters) are still talking about it, but it was behind us and we got going."

Whatever previous issues Boozer and the Jazz had really were in Sloan's rearview mirror, even if media members were in their grill as they navigated an 82-game regular season.

One reporter after another around the country would ask Sloan about Boozer, and with decided consistency the coach would defend him.

"It makes you crazy if you try to live with all that stuff," Sloan said. "Everybody has problems at times. Sometimes they're outspoken, sometimes they aren't. ... So what do you do about it? We still have to do our job.

"We have answered the question about (Boozer) almost every place we've been. I think he's tried to do the right thing, and tried to help us as much as he can. No player is perfect, no coach is perfect. But he's given us an opportunity to try to compete every day, because of his attitude and the way he's tried to come and play."

For that, Sloan declines all credit.

"Boozer did it himself," he said.

"Now you can talk about what I did. But, as a coach, you just try to hold guys together. They have to do the work. I don't have to do the playing. He's done the playing, and that's the most important thing as far as I'm concerned. When players do their job, I don't have a problem."

Boozer has his share of detractors, from leery media critics to a segment of Jazz fans who question his dependability and, at times, even his motives.

But this season, in a locker room that in years past hasn't always been as cohesive as is ideal for a team with a supposed common goal, he also has some backers.

"He's never been a player who cares about himself only," said Andrei Kirilenko, a teammate for all six of Boozer's seasons in Utah. "You know, since I'm here he's always been the guy who's trying to kind of combine guys together.

"Just from the side sometimes it looks like he's just a, you know, just selfish, very individual," Kirilenko added. "But he's not. ... I've never seen him be like that — 'I don't care about anybody; I'm gonna play myself.' No."

Combine that perception with the Jazz's success this season — 53 victories, a winning road record, losses in just 12 of their final 46 games, a fourth straight playoff berth — and maybe it shouldn't be surprising that Sloan hopes his team remains intact beyond this season.

"I can't worry about that right now, in all fairness to everybody," he said. "I don't own the team. I just try to coach. Those things take care of themselves, some way or another.

"I'd like to keep everybody together, but (sometimes) circumstances dictate otherwise — for whatever reason.

"But I can't deal with it now," Sloan added. "There's not much I can do about it."

What he can do, though, is draw on history to suggest this version of the Jazz has been together just barely long enough to scratch and sniff at what it took three Naismith Basketball Hall-of-Famers — Stockton and Sloan are in, Malone will be in August — more than a decade to taste.

Sloan — whose current club has been eliminated from the past three postseasons by the eventual Western Conference champs, once by San Antonio and twice by the defending NBA-champion Los Angeles Lakers — calls on his playing days with the expansion Chicago Bulls and coach Dick Motta.

"We gradually got a little bit better each year, until we were done. But you have to keep guys together," he said. "If you're gonna change, trade — well, somebody else will probably end up coaching them.

"I think it gives you a chance if you can keep guys together, and let them play together, so they have some idea of what we're gonna try to do in certain situations, and go do it. It sounds simple, but it's not that easy."

Certainly not in today's world of high pressure and even higher stakes.

"It's a big business, the NBA," said Kirilenko, who probably would have to go if the Jazz had any shot at being able to afford to keep Boozer. "We understand that, and you can't really do much."

Except, in Sloan's mind, be open to learning from the past.

"We had some bitter defeats — I guess people call them bitter — whenever John and Karl were there," he said of Stockton and Malone. "We got wiped out a couple times in the series to start off with. But it's how you come back.

"If you don't win it, most teams fall apart in that situation," the Jazz coach added. "But our team stayed together, for the most part, because of their leadership and their ability to work hard every day."

Sloan willingly shares those memories now, with passion.

They aren't, however, ones he shared with Boozer that day they met prior to the season.

So Boozer doesn't dwell on how long Stockton and Malone stuck together, doesn't ponder how much longer he, Sloan and Williams will.

Not now.

"We never talked about that, and I haven't thought about that at all," Boozer said. "I think all those thoughts will come later on in July, hopefully after we have a championship."

e-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com