Al Jefferson Back in Playoffs, Ending Drought That Overshadowed His Skills

Al Jefferson Back in Playoffs, Ending Drought That Overshadowed His SkillsFeel good for Al Jefferson, Celtics fans.

Jefferson, who the Celtics selected with the 15th pick in the 2004 draft, had never been to the playoffs before this season — not really, anyway. He was no more than a rookie in 2004-05 when he made his only postseason trip with Boston, under the tutelage of Raef LaFrentz and Mark Blount and taking fewer shots per game than Jiri Welsch.

For the first time as an All-Star caliber center — which is what he developed into after the Celtics sent him to Minnesota as part of the Kevin Garnett trade in 2007 — Jefferson will play in the NBA's second season. In the biggest game of his career, Jefferson and the Utah Jazz won a win-and-you're-in matchup with the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, fulfilling Jefferson's dream of returning to the playoffs after having most of April, May and June off for the last six years.

"Seven long years," Jefferson told The Salt Lake Tribune. "Seven long years since I have been in the playoffs. It's a blessing. It's a great opportunity to get here. A lot of people counted us out. Nobody thought this team would be in a position to get in the playoffs, and we made it. It's a great group of guys and everyone on our team deserves it."

Few deserve it as much as Jefferson, who has been saddled as this generation's great big-numbers, bad-team big man. Another year without a playoff appearance would have meant another long offseason for Jefferson, staring down the age of 30 and wondering if he would ever get to experience the playoffs again.

Things look much less bleak for Jefferson now that the Jazz are in the tournament. He is only 27 years old, after all, and under contract with Utah for one more season, while a young nucleus of Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward grows around him.

The Jazz face a massive challenge in the playoffs against the run-and-gun Spurs, but they have a four-in-seven chance. That is better than Jefferson has had in years.

In many ways, Jefferson and Utah were perfect for each other. The productive, yet flawed, player found a proud, yet glamor-less, franchise. Jefferson would never be caught up in a Dwight Howard-type contract drama because he does not possess that type of skill or temperament, while the Jazz declared just what they thought of such superstar shenanigans when they flipped Deron Williams to New Jersey last season. Meanwhile, the Jazz have never been high on any megastar's list of preferred free agent destinations.

When the Jazz traded for Jefferson two summers ago, both the player and the team were thrilled. Jefferson departed the lowly Timberwolves for a franchise that made the playoffs every year from 1984 to 2003, and was only four years removed from an appearance in the Western Conference Finals. The Jazz were willing to overlook Jefferson's shortcomings as a passer because he was a reliable 20-point, 10-rebound threat and because, perhaps most importantly of all, he actually wanted to play in Salt Lake City.

But for the 2010-11 season, the Minnesota aura traveled southwest. Jerry Sloan resigned as head coach after 22 seasons, Williams was traded and the Jazz missed the playoffs for only the fourth time since 1983. Questions arose whether Jefferson was the type of player who, for whatever reason, could not lead a winning team. His most productive season in Boston came during the 2006-07 debacle, and the best full season of his career came in the Wolves' 22-win campaign of 2007-08. The better Jefferson played, it seemed, the worse his team performed.

Making the playoffs now stunts that criticism of Jefferson somewhat, even if it is debatable whether he or Millsap is Utah's best player this season. (The belief here is that it is Millsap.) Boston fans have taken notice, wondering whether Jefferson could somehow return to the Celtics in 2013. There are low odds and there are longshots, and the chances of Jefferson again donning a green jersey might be even slimmer than that.

Jefferson does not need to be a member of the Celtics for Boston fans to wish him the best, though. He did not ask to be traded away, and he certainly did not ask to endure six years of averaging 56 losses a season. Big Al is back in the playoffs, assured of at least four appearances on national TV, which is at least four opportunities for Celtics fans to appreciate how far he has come.

Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here.

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