It seems like the Jazz almost always play their first-round playoff opponent in the last game of the season. On it's own, a season's last game always brings an onslaught of questions: Should the team give players a rest? Should it play its stars the entire game? How much effort should the team extend to grab an extra win? Should ailing players leave their uniforms in their locker, and instead wear a suit and sit on the second row?
When two eventual upcoming 1st-round opponents meet in the last game, even more questions arise. For instance, the Jazz and Lakers seem on track to meet for a session starting this weekend. Would it be better for the Jazz to lose, so as not to motivate the Lakers, thus hoping Utah can catch LA off-guard in game one? Would a win be better, because it could anger Kobe Bryant, and an angry Kobe is a selfish Kobe? Would a close win by Utah even anger the Lakers?
What about a blow-out loss by the Jazz? That might get the LA feeling casual and increase give the Jazz's motivation a much-needed jump-start. Could a blow-out actually be better?
Even more questions can be raised when you take into account that the Lakers possibly have control over which team they will see in the first round. If they would rather not play the Jazz in the first round, they could ease up and increase Utah's chances of winning tonight, then hope that either Dallas or New Orleans lose, averting an opening-round series with the Jazz.
All these questions can have more than one plausible answer before the final game, and the truthfulness of the answers are rarely known, even over time. It is impossible to say whether the way the final game of the season played out had any impact on the what eventually happened in the playoffs. It is all speculation. Which is why the best thing for a team to do, trite as it sounds, is to expend the capacity of their energy every single game of the season, whether the game is in November, April, or one of the four months in between.
Winning comes down to some combination of three things: being better, being smarter, or working harder. If both teams play fairly even in those three capacities, then a game be decided by which team did the three things best at the end of a game or which team got a fortunate bounce at a fortunate time (over-simplified, it is called luck).
In John Stockton's last or second-to-last season, the Jazz were about to be matched up with the Sacramento Kings, one of the Western Conference's best teams that year, in the first round. The Kings had some injury problems that might be detrimental, which would increase Utah's chances of prevailing. When Jerry Sloan was asked about this, he said something along the lines of, "We want each team's best effort every single game."
He's absolutely correct. Rather than trying to wrap their heads around which scenario could potentially provide a team with it's best chance to advance a round, that team is better served to instead just take care of matters themselves and win, because the time will come when they will need to beat a team on their own. A squad that relies on others for their own playoff successes can only go so far (see: Utah Jazz, 2007 Playoffs). Within the bounds of the rules, it is physically and scientifically impossible for one team to win a championship for another team. Winners have their own merits.
The thing to watch for tonight is how Ronnie Brewer plays on offense. He has started to play confident when the Jazz face the Lakers at The Larry, but he is more-than-tentative whenever Utah matches up with Bryant at Staples. A confident Brewer makes more plays on defense.