08 January 2012
It was a night of firsts for the Utah Jazz, and on more fronts than just one. Utah secured it's first road win of the young season in dramatic fashion, beating the Golden State Warriors in a thrilling 88-87 contest Saturday night. And getting the road woes monkey off their backs wasn't the only win for this year's team.
A familiar face reappeared to contribute in big ways on both ends of the court for the first time this season. And just at the right time.
Good Raja returns to save the day (Photo courtesy of Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Much maligned shooting guard Raja Bell broke out of his early season slump to play a major role early on, as well as be the key defensive stopper of yesteryear on the final play of the game. As vocal as many fans have been regarding Raja's struggles (myself included), it was refreshing to turn those jeers to cheers, especially on that final play. Kudos to Raja for overcoming some major criticism, some warranted, some not, and shutting the haters up. More of that, please.
Utah's hot streak to end Friday's game must have been bottled, packed and flown on the plane with the team. The Jazz got out to a hot start, up 18-6 early in the 1st quarter. The offense was executing, passing was crisp, and the open man was consistently knocking down the open jumper. In fact, of Utah's first ten baskets, eight were assisted - which screams "Utah Jazz of old".
But the energetic spark plug that is the Jazz bench didn't quite have it tonight. Possibly thrown for a loop due to Paul Millsap getting into foul trouble often? Not sure. However, not once, but twice did Golden State make runs on the supporting cast (once in the 2nd quarter, once early on in the 4th). To get that first road win, it was going to be up to the starters.
They were definitely up for the challenge.
Once Millsap, who led all Utah players in +/- with a +18, got his fouls under control, he was able to anchor the team for the final stretch. Numerous great passes, including one under the rim to a cutting Josh Howard, sparked the Jazz to an improbable comeback. Gordon Hayward had a fantastic game as well, scoring 18 points on 6-11 shooting from the field, including 2-3 from behind the arc. But it was Hayward's late steal on Monta Ellis and subsequent free throws from a fast break foul that sealed the win.
Hold up. Let me rephrase that and give proper credit to who sealed the victory. Hayward gave Utah the lead with 11 seconds left, 88-87, by hitting one of two free throws. Golden State would put the ball in the hands of their prolific scorer, Monta Ellis, for the their final possession. Monta went isolation on the 34 year old Raja Bell, who smothered him with fantastic defense, forcing an uncomfortable fadeaway that clanked off the rim.
For this evening, Raja so often the goat, was now the GOAT. (Let's not get carried away, but it was great to see glimpses of the Raja Jazz fans came to love.)
Bell, Hayward and Millsap have already gotten love from me thus far. But this win was truly a team win. As the title states, this was a night of firsts. For me, it really felt like the first complete game they've put together. A hot start? Check. Overcoming deficits? Check. Trailing late and pulling out a great road win a la Utah Jazz circa November 2010? Check.
I won't get too carried away, as I realize that Utah's current four game winning streak has seen each opponent's "best" player in street clothes. Eric Gordon on Monday vs. New Orleans; Andrew Bogut and Mike Dunleavy Jr. sitting for Milwaukee on Tuesday; Memphis sans big man Zach Randolph last night; Sharp shooter Stephen Curry out tonight. What Utah CAN'T control is who suits up against them. And I, for one, am happy to see this team winning games they "should". Determining whether or not this squad is really progressing is bit more difficult as the level of competition decreases when big names sit, obviously. Point is, be happy they are winning these games. Losses would feel much, much worse.
Defense, defense, defense. This is not a Jazz trait we are used to seeing. And, yes, while the perimeter defense still has some wrinkles to iron out, Utah is blocking shots (top in the league), getting steals and making life difficult for opponents. A big reason for this has been our outstanding bench duo of Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. Tonight? Not so much. But it was Al Jefferson who came up with a late block that Utah desperately needed. More of this, Al. Way to ball tonight.
Utah beat a Mark Jackson led Golden State Warriors squad in their house. That's about all that needs to be said there.
Already having mentioned the bench, it pains me greatly to ask the question: What is going on with CJ Miles? I've been a staunch defender of his for a while now, and even I have had to scratch my head. So far this season, he's shooting less than 20% on shots outside the paint and inside the three. His shot selection is questionable (that's being kind) and has committed some awful fouls late in the clock or in quarters. He appears to be in Ty's doghouse, as his minutes keep dwindling - a season low four minutes tonight. His body language shows something is bothering him. Here's to hoping he gets it figured out sooner than later.
Enes Kanter has a nose for the rebounds and a fearlessness that Jazz fans often celebrate. If only the offensive skill set matched that fire, he'd be a shoe in for rookie of the year. What can't be hidden is Kanter's obvious lack of fundamentals on the offensive end, struggling to get shots on target even at close range. At 19, and only eight games into the season, growth will come. But watching him fail time after time to seal a put-back layup or get up to dunk it home gives me the blues.
Utah is now 5-3 on the season, riding a four game winning streak into their next game. That 5-3 may be a little deceiving. But, as stated, they are winning the ones they should, and that's refreshing. Next up? A home contest against Cleveland. Anyone from the Idaho Stampede wanna sign a 10-day? Love you forever, Sundiata Gaines.
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