Another night, another failed box-out leading to a tip-in win for a team in the Western Conference playoff race.
On Thursday, the Utah Jazz were the beneficiaries on the boards, as center Al Jefferson, unfettered by defenders, corralled a missed Devin Harris runner and put it in with 0.9 seconds left in the fourth quarter to give the Jazz a 103-102 win over the Sacramento Kings.
And it was a missed runner. Don't you dare believe those lying, assist-hungry point guards. From the Associated Press:
Devin Harris claimed he was trying to pass the ball to Utah teammate Al Jefferson, who was alone under the basket with time winding down.
Jefferson wasn't so sure but he wasn't going to argue [...] "I honestly thought it was a short shot," said Jefferson, who shot 13 for 19 from the floor. "I was at the basket by myself and that was the only way he could get it to me. It was a perfect pass."
The play was ruled a missed shot by Harris and a putback by Jefferson on the official score sheet.
I'm sure Harris appreciates his center trying to give him an assist, even if he's not going to get one himself.
The bucket capped off a perfect 5-of-5 night at the rim for Jefferson and came on a play that, depending on your perspective, could be attributed to either a Sacramento lapse or Jazz coach Ty Corbin's design.
Following a bowling-ball drive to the hoop for a layup by Kings guard Marcus Thornton (16 points on 7-of-18 shooting) that gave Sacramento a 102-101 lead with 4.1 seconds remaining, Corbin called a timeout, advancing the ball past half-court and letting rookie Alec Burks trigger play from the right sideline. Jefferson steps out toward the top of the key to represent that he's setting a screen for Utah guard Gordon Hayward, who is running away from the ball. On the back side of the play, Harris sets a back screen for power forward Paul Millsap, bumping off Sacramento's Jason Thompson and giving Millsap an opening to run to the near corner to provide a safety-valve option on the inbounds pass.
As Hayward curls down the left side of the lane, Jefferson squares up and heads to the basket, pressing Kings center DeMarcus Cousins down between the circles. Having set his screen for Millsap, Harris sprints toward the 3-point line for Burks' inbounds pass, with both Hayward and Jefferson providing impediments to slow down defender John Salmons. Harris curls at the free-throw line, catches Burks' pass and drives the right side of the lane with Salmons in pursuit.
All that pre-snap movement ensures that three Sacramento defenders — Thompson, guarding Millsap in the near corner; Thornton, whom Hayward has drawn off the left block on the back side of the play; and Tyreke Evans, who guarded in the inbounds pass and stayed with Burks up top — are occupied in areas where they can't really affect what's happening. It's a four-man game at this point — Harris with the ball, Salmons trailing him, and Cousins and Jefferson in the paint.
With a shade over three seconds left, Harris starts to raise up for his attempt, putting Cousins in the position of having to make a decision — do I step toward the shooter to help Salmons and contest the shot, or do I stay with Jefferson? In that split-second, the sophomore big man chooses poorly — sure, the on-rushing length of Cousins may have influenced the point guard's release and led to the shot coming up short, but Salmons had recovered his lost ground and was already in the process of doing an excellent job of contesting Harris' floater.
Meanwhile, his double leaves Jefferson — who won a game against the Toronto Raptors in a very similar fashion right around this time last year — all alone underneath to clean up the miss. By the time the other Kings defenders can converge on the paint, they're all on the outside looking in, watching Big Al win the game. (Frankly, DeMarcus, I expect better from a coach with your resume.)
You might blame Cousins for abandoning his post; you might credit Corbin for drawing up a late-game play that would create either a clean look for his point guard or a one-on-one opportunity for his center and a chance at an offensive rebound. Either way, it's fair to say that Jefferson's only offensive board of the night — Sacramento's front line dominated Utah on the glass, with Cousins and Thompson combining for 33 rebounds, including 18 offensive boards, as the Kings outrebounded the Jazz 55-45 — was a pretty big one.
In fact, Al's offensive rebounding numbers, which have never been great for a four/five type, have been down all year; he's grabbing 7.4 percent of his team's available misses, according to Basketball-Reference.com. He had a strong showing on that end in February, averaging 2.8 offensive boards per game in 15 Jazz contests, but his glasswork has dipped a bit in March, with Jefferson averaging 1.7 nightly offensive rebounds in his 11 appearances this month.
Then again, considering the Jazz went 4-11 in February and now stand at 9-4 in March, having won five straight (including games against the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers that Jefferson missed for personal reasons) to draw within a half-game of the eighth-place Houston Rockets and stay in the thick of the Western Conference playoff chase, I'm guessing coach Corbin's not sweating the dip too much, especially on nights when he leads all scorers with 26 points on 13-of-19 shooting and blocks four shots. (Just how thick is that West chase? As The Basketball Jones' Tas Melas tweeted Friday morning, ninth-place Utah trails the fourth-place Dallas Mavericks by just 1.5 games in the standings.)
The putback punctuated an exciting fourth quarter that saw the Kings work to erase an eight-point deficit entering the final 12 minutes, drawing even on a Chuck Hayes basket just inside the seven-minute mark. The teams traded buckets from there, with the lead changing hands 10 times in the last six-plus minutes.
The nip-and-tuck play culminated in a wild stretch of end-to-end action in the final two minutes that saw Jefferson, Harris and Burks each make big plays for Utah to hold off the hard-charging Thornton, who scored Sacramento's final six points but fell short of answering Big Al's tip-in with a contested 3-pointer on the other end.
Is the clip above not rocking for you? Feel free to peruse the tip-in elsewhere, thanks to our friends at the National Basketball Association.