Jefferson, Jazz ready for leap to postseason
By LYNN DeBRUIN
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) There was a time when Al Jefferson was overwhelmed, struggling through a fitness evaluation program just months after his 2010 trade to the Utah Jazz from Minnesota.
"He really got his butt handed to him," said Marcus Elliott, who runs the specialty P3 camp in Santa Barbara, Calif. "I don't think he enjoyed any minute he was with us. Of all the athletes, he was the one who battled it the most."
Jefferson, however, made a second go at the program last offseason - on his own during the NBA lockout - even relocating to Santa Barbara for an extended period so he could put in the time.
The eighth-year pro wanted to be able to defend stronger, jump higher and stay healthy - rededicating himself with the goal of returning to the playoffs for the first time since his rookie season.
One win against the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night and the Jazz will be in.
His teammates want it as much for the big guy as Jefferson himself.
Even certain opponents find it hard to root against him.
"I think he deserves it," said Orlando Magic center Glen Davis, a fellow southerner who has battled Jefferson since their AAU days. "People underestimate the guy. People look past him. But he's a great player."
Jefferson leads the Jazz in just about every statistical category - points per game (19.4), rebounds (9.6), minutes (34.4) and blocks (1.68) - and his shooting percentage (.494) lags just slightly behind the two youngsters he is mentoring: Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter.
He even made his first career 3-pointer this year, the night he fought back tears after losing his grandmother.
The 27-year-old Jefferson ranks second among NBA centers in scoring behind only Orlando's Dwight Howard, who won't be available for the playoffs or London Olympics following back surgery for a herniated disk.
Overall, Jefferson's numbers are the best since he tore his right ACL midway through the 2008-09 season with Minnesota, which acquired him in July 2007 from Boston in the Kevin Garnett trade.
"Normally at this time of the season I lose my strength," said Jefferson.
All the offseason work has helped him stay strong.
Saturday's overtime victory against Orlando marked his 30th double-double of the season, with a key block and rebound down the stretch as well as the game-tying 12-footer with 21 seconds left in regulation.
In overtime, he scored Utah's first points with a nice spin move around Davis, and set up the clinching 3-pointers when he was double-teamed inside.
"He's our go-to guy," point guard Devin Harris said. "He demands so much attention. Everybody's talking about my 3-point shooting, but he's a big part of that because of the double teams he demands."
Five days earlier, Jefferson fueled Utah's triple-overtime victory over Dallas. He scored 28 and tied a career high with 26 rebounds - the third-most in franchise history and most since the team moved from New Orleans in 1979.
He showed off power moves inside and soft jumpers, and had two blocks, a steal and an assist.
"He played a gazillion minutes," Jazz strength coach Mark McKown said of Jefferson's 54 minutes vs. Dallas. "And he was still explosive."
In Santa Barbara last year, experts fixed biomechanics that were making Jefferson more prone to injury, speeded up his second jump, improved his standing vertical 4 inches and boosted his lower-body power. Overall, it was a big difference from that first session, when jumping up to a 24-inch box looked so daunting for Jefferson, Elliott was almost afraid to watch.
Last offseason in Santa Barbara, the 6-foot-10, 289-pound Jefferson was able to leap onto 48-inch boxes.
"There was no way that was in the realm of possibility when we first saw him," Elliott said. "He really was pretty beat down with that first experience. (Last year) he was hungry. He always wanted more."
That's especially true now, with two games remaining in the regular season, including the huge game against the Suns.
Updated April 24, 2012