SALT LAKE CITY — Tyrone Corbin remembers the scared pup that arrived in Salt Lake City as part of the Deron Williams trade two year ago.
Now the Jazz coach has so much confidence in Derrick Favors he wasn’t afraid to unleash him with Utah’s playoff hopes on the line.
The 6-foot-10 former Georgia Tech star delivered Sunday night, blocking a shot with 40.9 seconds left to preserve Utah’s 97-90 road victory over Golden State. The win, coupled with the Lakers’ loss to the Clippers, allowed Utah (41-37) to reclaim the Western Conference’s final playoff spot.
If the Jazz go 3-1 over their remaining four games (Oklahoma City tonight, Minnesota home/away, then Memphis), the Lakers (40-37) would have to win their last five because Utah owns the tiebreaker.
Favors, all grown up, looks forward to that crunch-time pressure.
Actually, Favors said Monday, “There’s no pressure. We know what we got to do, win these games.”
It’s that confidence that comes from feeling at home and wanted – a stark contrast to the power forward Corbin first saw in a Jazz uniform.
“He was a scared 19-year-old man that was surprised he got traded and didn’t know what to think of it, what to think of us, or where to go next,” Corbin said of Favors after the February 2011 deal with the New Jersey Nets, who eight months earlier had made the Georgia Tech standout the No. 3 overall pick of the 2010 draft. “I think he’s just relaxed and comfortable now because he feels wanted here and has a role in how good we do or how bad we do.”
Many wondered how Utah would do after losing one of its big men, 6-11 Enes Kanter, to a dislocated left shoulder against Phoenix on March 27.
The 21-year-old Favors picked up the minutes and the slack. In the past five games he is averaging 27 minutes, 12.2 points, nine rebounds and two blocks, while shooting 24 of 42 (59.5 percent) from the field.
Sunday night he played nearly 30 minutes, finishing with 12 points, a team-high 13 rebounds and three blocks – none bigger than the one as Draymond Green drove strong to the rim with Utah leading 93-90.
Five seconds earlier, Corbin had subbed in Favors for starting center Al Jefferson.
“When coach subbed me out and put him back in, I couldn’t be no happier than if he were putting me in the game,” Jefferson said. “I feel like that was the right move, and he made a big defensive stop there. Derrick Favors really is the key reason why our defense is great, especially in the key, in the crunch time of the game.”
Guard Randy Foye said Favors controlled the game defensively, helping out on screens and pick-and-rolls while altering shots. “He played his butt off and he really is the MVP of that game,” Foye said afterward.
“His athleticism is huge for us, but then (so is) his understanding of defense and how to be in position and the effort and second effort you have to have to make plays, especially to close ball games,” Corbin added.
The Jazz will need all of that down the stretch, starting at home Tuesday against the Thunder, which is coming off a tough loss to the streaking New York Knicks. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the biggest stars, but Favors likely will have to deal with Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison.
Favors, who leads the Jazz with 121 blocks, registered six of them in the last two meetings with the Thunder.
The two teams have split their two most recent games, with the Jazz handing Oklahoma City an embarrassing 109-94 loss in Salt Lake City on Feb. 12 and the Thunder getting payback on their home court a month later with a 110-87 thrashing on March 13. The Thunder won the first meeting this season, 106-94, in Oklahoma City on Nov. 30.
“They’re still in a fight to have the best record in the west,” Corbin said of an Oklahoma City (56-21) team that sits a game behind San Antonio (57-20). “We have something to play for (in every game) ... We’re not a lock yet.”
Corbin believes the one surety is that Favors, only in his third year, will get better — especially as he develops more of an offensive game. He’s reached a point where the Jazz are designing plays for him.
“At times you’re able to go and get him the ball in the post on offense and he can make plays on the weak side after a guy take a shot, or gets a rebound. All those things expand his role and expand his time of the floor because he’s making plays on both ends,” Corbin said.
Corbin hopes one stat —that Favors leads the team in personal fouls — also will change.
“That’s part of the recognition and growing up in this league,” Corbin said. “Right now some of the plays that he makes don’t look like a play that can be made and referees tend to blow the whistle a little sooner.”
Utah’s season comes down to four games. Favors is enjoying each one — again a stark contrast to his first year with the Jazz.
“I wasn’t scared,” Favors said Monday. “I was just mentally exhausted from the whole thing, everything I went through in New Jersey, then getting traded here. I was just ready to get the season over with so I could go home.”
Now, he said, Utah is home. “I bought a puppy. It’s official,” he said, proud of the recent addition he made two weeks ago and announced with a Twitter picture.
The brown pit bull named Gotti initially kept Favors up at night with his whining. But even that has stopped, and Favors has him housebroken.
“I guess he’s getting comfortable right now, too,” Favors said with a smile.