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Jazz clinch No. 1 seed with rout of Kings in season finale

Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley, left, drives to the basket as Sacramento Kings center Damian Jones, right, defends during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Sunday, May 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Randall Benton)

(Randall Benton, Associated Press)



SALT LAKE CITY — Jazz coach Quin Snyder had an idea of what he wanted his team to be entering the season.

With Rudy Gobert, he anticipated Utah would be an elite defense; and with a stronger emphasis in taking more 3s, he hoped the offense would see an uptick. What he didn't know, however, was how that would all translate in the standings.

"This team has really developed an identity," Snyder said. "I didn't know where it would land us as far as record, but I did feel strongly about the way that we needed to play to maximize who we have."

That identity now includes being the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.

Utah's 121-99 rout of the Kings Sunday in Sacramento locked up the top seed in the West and homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. The Jazz finished with a 52-20 record — one game ahead of the Phoenix Suns whose victory Sunday afternoon forced Utah to beat the Kings to wrap up the NBA's best record.

How rare is that feat? It's only the second time in franchise history (1997-98) the Jazz finished the season earning homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs, and only the third time Utah will be a No. 1 seed.

The good news for Jazz fans: Both of the other times they were a top seed (1996-97 and 1997-98) the Jazz made the NBA Finals.

"Obviously very proud of our team and our guys," Snyder said, when asked to sum up the season. "This year has been a challenging year on a lot of levels and we've been able to maintain some consistency through some adversity, which is really good to see."

That adversity made the moment on Sunday even more special. The pandemic-shortened season forced games to be played nearly one after another, leading to a small supply of practice time and rest — all while dealing with COVID-19 restrictions.

"It's definitely a great feeling, just because we know we put a lot into it this year," said Jordan Clarkson, who led the Jazz with 33 points on 11-of-20 shooting. "It all kind of started in the bubble, all of us getting real close and becoming a tight-knit group. ... But we know we got bigger goals ... we've got bigger fish to fry."

Even with knowing the season's goal is far from accomplished, the Jazz realized Sunday was a time to celebrate, especially for Gobert. He arrived in Utah in 2013 in the midst of a massive rebuild. He's been on lottery teams and lost in the first round; and now, seven years later, he, at least for the moment, is on top of the NBA.

"I mean, I think it's a great accomplishment coming from where we came from seven years ago, from not making the playoffs and building from scratch and building stone after stone and being able to build a culture, build a team, build an identity," said Gobert, who had 13 points and 16 rebounds in Utah's top-seed clinching win. "Being in this position today is pretty amazing."

That identity was in full swing on Sunday. After a sluggish start to the game, Utah righted the ship and dominated the Kings by doing what they've done for much of the season: The Jazz went 18-of-39 from 3 and Gobert led a dominant defensive effort that forced the Kings to shoot 46% from the field and 30% from 3.

Utah became the first NBA team to make 10 3s in each game of the regular season.

While celebrating the accomplishment of being the No. 1 seed, the Jazz realize their journey is far from over.

"I think we also have a keen understanding that beginning next week no one's worried about what you've done today or the previous months," Snyder said. "It's about pushing forward."

With Sunday's victory, the Jazz can now turn their attention fully to the playoffs. That preparation, though, is a bit more difficult than previous years — and, ironically, that's because of Utah's high seed.

The Jazz won't know who the No. 8 seed will be until Friday when the NBA's Play-in Tournament is completed. As of now, the Jazz only know they will play either the Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies or San Antonio Spurs.

That also means they can enjoy the accomplishment — at least for a little bit.

At the end of his media availability following Sunday's win, Clarkson was asked what song described the current mood of the Jazz locker room. He hardly took any time at all to say: "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" by Tears for Fears.

On Sunday, the Jazz ruled the NBA world. Now they'll have to show they can stay there when the games really count.

"I want all of them, all of us, to enjoy this moment," Snyder said, "because I feel like if we do that, appreciate the regular season, then I think that transitions us to whatever mindset we need to have to try to play well in playoffs, and continue to compete and to execute. That's what these guys have done all year."

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