05 December 2010
Let me unite Thursday night's TV viewing with Friday night's thusly:
(A) LeBron James scored 38 points in three quarters, preened in front of the other team's bench as he did it, and never landed on his back once.
(B) That would never, ever, ever happen in Utah.
Suffice it to say the Jazz play with a bit more of an edge than the Cavs showed against Miami, something we can see for ourselves when Utah takes on Dallas in Friday's late national-TV game (ESPN/ESPN3.com, 10:30 ET). Surprisingly, the battle matches the teams with the second- and third-best records in the Western Conference.
More generally, between the rise of Utah, Dallas, San Antonio and New Orleans, and the Lakers' recent vulnerability, we've been left with a far more interesting chase in the Western Conference than we anticipated. While L.A. remains a heavy favorite, the strong starts by those other four squads have left the Lakers tied for just the fifth-best record in the conference, despite a very favorable early schedule for L.A.Utah's emergence, in particular, seemed far from a sure thing at the start of the season. With Carlos Boozer gone in free agency and Mehmet Okur rehabbing from a torn Achilles suffered in the first round of the playoffs last season, concerns about Utah's frontcourt loomed large. And remember, this was the same team whose front line was absolutely bludgeoned by L.A.'s in a four-game sweep in the second round last season. Doubts mushroomed when the Jazz were hammered in their first two games. Deron Williams seemed unhappy, angrily firing a ball at rookie Gordon Hayward and questioning the team's lack of film work. They scored only 78 points against Golden State, a feat previously thought impossible, and trailed at home by 18 to the lowly Clippers the next game. With a four-game road swing against Eastern playoff teams looming, a 2-8 start didn't seem out of the question. But the Jazz came back to beat the Clips, setting off an amazing streak of comeback wins: seven times in the first 20 games they've rallied from 10 points or more behind to win. A full third of the league -- 10 teams -- hasn't won seven times in any fashion, let alone with theatrics like this. Don't look now, but Utah is 12-2 in its past 14 games; the only losses were to the Spurs and Thunder. The list of victims is impressive, too: Already, the Jazz have beaten the defending champion Lakers, Miami, Orlando, New Orleans, Atlanta and Oklahoma City. If they beat Dallas on Friday night they'll have beaten three of the other top four teams in each conference, and they a have a good excuse for not beating Boston -- they don't play the Celtics until January.
Nonetheless, the biggest factor here is likely the one I mentioned at the top of the story. Utah is overachieving on defense because Sloan demands nothing less, particularly from the subs who aren't expected to contribute heavily on offense. Essentially, the overt physicality on D is a means to an end: The Jazz will give up lots of free throws, but you'll never see what we saw in Cleveland on Thursday night.The Jazz's second unit scores less than the starters, but their defensive numbers are phenomenal; despite sky-high foul rates for all except Elson, Utah gives up less than a point per possession (league-leading caliber) with any of those five on the court.
As long as Sloan can get elite-level D from a bench made up of castoffs and second-round draft picks, he'll get enough first-rate offense from Williams and Millsap to stay near the top of the West's upper crust ... and in doing so, may finally end his inexplicable Coach of the Year drought. In the wake of the total surrender we, um, Witnessed on Thursday night, watching his squad should provide a refreshing counter-example.
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