Jazz back in conference finals

Jazz back in conference finals

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By DOUG ALDEN AP Sports Writer

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- It's the middle of May and Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan still has some coaching to do.

His annual trek back to his farm in Illinois will have to wait because Sloan and the Jazz are back in the Western Conference finals for the first time in nearly a decade. Utah advanced by beating the Golden State Warriors 100-87 Tuesday to wrap up the series in five games and get a break before the next round.

The Jazz have survived a late-season slump that cost them homecourt advantage in the first round, won Game 7 on the road in Houston to advance and then beat the Warriors despite averaging 23 turnovers in the series.

Sloan sees some grit in the new Jazz, who haven't been in the conference finals since John Stockton and Karl Malone led them there in 1998.

"In the past, when Karl and John were here, that was expected," Sloan said. "Guys have to experience some difficulty if they're going to learn how to play in tough games."

Sloan, the farmer from southern Illinois, is a big believer in learning through experience. The Jazz had little of it entering the playoffs, but have had their mettle tested repeatedly over the past month and have passed often enough to keep the season going.

"I said a long time ago we have a young team that needs to grow up," said 26-year-old Andrei Kirilenko, one of Utah's veterans. "We're still growing up. We're getting to where we can have concentration for the full 48 minutes."

Utah will play either San Antonio or Phoenix in the next round, starting early next week. That will give the Jazz time to rest after playing every-other night against the Warriors since the series opened on May 7.

Sloan gave his players Wednesday off after they celebrated late Tuesday with their sixth playoff win at home in as many games. It wasn't pretty. The Jazz had 25 turnovers and needed to make their last six free throws to pull away in the final minute.

But the Jazz persevered, as they have since needing to win the last two games of the Houston series to advance. All four wins against the Warriors were close until the end, so the experience the Jazz lacked at the beginning of the playoffs is building.

"We didn't seem to hang our head and allow the Warriors to really take control of the game," said Derek Fisher, whose dramatic entrance into Game 2 highlighted the Golden State series. "It seemed our ability to respond was at such a high level."

Fisher didn't arrive until the third quarter because he was on his way back from New York, where his 10-month old daughter had surgery and treatment on a malignant eye tumor. The Jazz ended up winning in overtime.

It was an inspirational moment for his teammates, who have been a scrappy bunch willing to dive to the floor for a loose ball or take a steamrolling hit to try to draw an offensive foul.

Dee Brown, who sprained his neck in Game 2 when 6-foot-11 teammate Mehmet Okur landed on him in the lane, returned Tuesday and spelled starter Deron Williams after he got two quick fouls in the first quarter.

After Utah's Gordan Giricek missed on an ill-advised dunk that clanged high off the back of the rim, Brown sprinted back and broke up a Warriors fast break by knocking the ball out of bounds.

Brown -- the guy who was taken to the hospital six days before with a neck injury -- ended up in the front row under the basket. And fellow rookie Paul Millsap was a rebounding machine again with 12 boards.

"For two young guys to have that kind of presence for us, that was huge. It allows the guys with experience late in the game to make some plays and help us win," Fisher said.

The Jazz won't know who they are playing until the Spurs-Suns series ends. It will go at least six games and the winner will host the first two games of the conference finals. Utah split four games with the Spurs during the regular season and went 3-1 against the Suns, but the one loss was 126-98 in Salt Lake City on April 14.

"Obviously, they're the two best teams left in the Western Conference in terms of seeding. They've been two of the better teams all season long," Fisher said.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.) APTV-05-16-07 1709MDT

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