SALT LAKE CITY — A day after being named the Western Conference player of the week, Al Jefferson is closing in on the most monumental point in his career.
If Big Al and the Utah Jazz can beat the Phoenix Suns in tonight's TNT showdown at EnergySolutions Arena, Jefferson's team will be headed to the playoffs.
"It's the biggest game of my career," Jefferson admitted this morning after Utah's shootaround.
Jefferson hasn't been to the playoffs since his rookie season with Boston in 2005, and he was only a bench contributor for the Celtics at that point.
"It's exactly what I thought it (NBA) was going to be," Jefferson said of the fact the Jazz are in the playoff mix this late in the season. "It just feels good to be a part of it and be one of the main guys."
Utah will likely have veteran wings Raja Bell and Josh Howard available to help out tonight if Coach Tyrone Corbin chooses to throw them in the mix. Both Bell and Howard practiced Monday and went through shootaround, and Corbin expects them to be in uniform tonight for the first time in weeks.
Perhaps more importantly, it remains unknown whether the Suns will have defense-stretching players Channing Frye (shoulder) and Grant Hill (knee) available for action.
Jefferson is just thrilled to have what general manager Kevin O'Connor describes a "meaningful" game. But he's also cognizant that Utah hasn't had any success against Steve Nash & Co. since 2009.
"You don't want to start acting like you've done something when you haven't," Jefferson said. "This team has beaten us the last seven times. ... so we got to come out ready to play because they're going to be ready to play. This game is just as important to them."
The Jazz would clinch a playoff spot with a win, but the Suns would still need to beat the Spurs at home in order to get in if they win tonight (if Utah beats Portland on Thursday).
"This is the one. It's here. Big game tonight for us," Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said after today's strategy session. "We're looking forward to the challenge. The guys are ready to go and we know what's at stake. String them up and let's go."
Gordon Hayward agreed that this elimination-like game is reminiscent of his experiences with Butler a couple of years ago when he led the Bulldogs to the NCAA championship game.
"Pretty much it's like win or go home. It's a big game," Hayward said. "I think you just treat it as another game. We put in the preparation. I think we should be confident and ready to go."
The Jazz (34-30) come into this game on a three-game winning streak. Phoenix (33-31) lost a double-digit home game to Denver on Saturday and has gone 5-5 since beating Utah 107-105 at the ESA on April 4.