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Saturday marked the homecoming of a very important figure in Utah Jazz history.  We all know him.  He contributed to some of the greatest moments in recent memory.  A point guard all of us rallied behind and loved dearly.  Yes, you know who I’m talking about.

The man, they myth and the legend:  Sundiata Gaines.

Wait, huh?  Yes, Sundiata’s return to Utah two years to the date (January 14, 2010) of his NBA debut and desperation game winning, fade away triple is forever etched in our memories.  But this night’s homecoming was centered around two long time Jazzmen, traded to New Jersey in the past year.  And while the game result for Deron Williams, Mehmet Okur and their New Jersey Nets was rather forgettable, the impressions left on them by Jazz fans in the arena will no doubt stay with them for a while.

 

Introductions saw a mix of emotions.  Okur, the loveable 3-point assassin and longtime Jazz man, was given a warm reception overall.  Williams, however, received a smattering boos among the few cheers.  And while I have my own opinions on the matter (I felt Deron’s commitment to the Utah Jazz and the community in general warranted more respect than he was given last night), I understand the general vibe that was present at Energy Solutions Arena.  I'll explain later.

And, hey, if they we trying to rattle Deron, it worked.  Williams struggled all night to find a groove, finishing with a quiet 16 points on 3-15 shooting.  Hardly the return I’m sure he’d hoped for.  New Jersey, fresh off an exhausting victory the night before in Phoenix, were no match for the well rested Jazz, who after Saturday’s 107-94 victory over the Nets have now won six of their last seven.

Utah defenders deny Deron Williams a lay up 
Changing of the guard: Deron Williams blocked by Al Jefferson at Energy Solutions Arena (photo courtesy of Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images) 

Utah, led by an early 15-2 first quarter run, grabbed the reins and never looked back.  Paul Millsap has been in All-Star form during Utah’s recent tear, and Saturday saw more of the same, finishing with 18 points, 12 rebounds and a team high +/- of +15.  More importantly, Millsap’s stellar play, combined with the rest of the starters, enabled them to sit the entire fourth quarter in preparation for tonight’s important division game in Denver.

A moment that brought a smile to my face was watching C.J. Miles defend Deron Williams.  The two are good friends and both highly competitive.  At one point, Deron drew a foul on C.J., doubling over after getting hit in the face (not by C.J., but by his own bicep).  Miles, familiar with Deron’s play, laughed and applauded the act as if to say, “You win this round, buddy.”  Later, Deron would try to cross Miles over, only to have C.J. force him to the corner and into a bad pass…right into the arms of Enes Kanter.  Touché.

High Notes:

Two recently-under-fire wings, Raja Bell and  C.J. Miles, had outstanding performances on both ends.  Bell would finish with a season-high 12 points (5-6 FG), all of them coming in the first half.  And who knew Bell could still get up  and dunk?  The recipient of a fast break outlet pass, Bell went up strongly to dunk over his pursuant, Jordan Farmar.  Miles, off the bench, would kick in 17 points, hitting six of his eight attempts to break out of a recent shooting slump. A highlight was his pick-pocketing of longtime teammate Okur under the Jazz basket, followed up by a nasty two-hand dunk in the same sequence.  A stiff test awaits Utah tonight, and a similar output by Bell and Miles will be crucial to Utah’s success.

 

Earl Watson had a sweet over the shoulder dish to a trailing Alec (Eric) Burks for a lovely two-handed fast break finish.  Watson’s play has been instrumental in Utah’s current run.

Enes Kanter’s motor continues to impress.  I find myself repeating this often, but once this young man can learn to finish around the rim (no pump fakes, Enes…JUST GO UP STRONG!), watch out.  Rebounding comes so natural to him, and it’s truly a joy to watch him out there.  Kanter chipped in a solid 7 points (3-6 FG), 8 rebounds and 2 steals in 18 minutes last night.

Utah is now 7-4, winning six of their last seven games (the sole loss in an overtime thriller at home against the Lakers).  Gaining in the win column and in confidence, Utah’s early season success is translating into cohesion and chemistry for a team that truly looked lost early on.  A little home cookin’ will do that for you.  The Jazz get another crack at the Nuggets tonight in Denver in an attempt to avenge the December 28th beat down doled out by Nene and company.

#JeremyEvansAlert.  Nice to see him get in the game and nearly pull off a horribly thrown alley-oop from Jamaal Tinsley.  Any playing time for Jeremy Evans is reason to celebrate.

For good measure, it was refreshing to see Sundiata Gaines hit a three in the fourth quarter with the clock winding down.  Luckily, it wasn't a clutch three to sink his opponent.  Two years ago, one of the most spectacular regular season Jazz games unfolded with the feel good story of Gaines' call up to the NBA.  To you, Sundiata, we tip our hats.  You'll always have a special place in Jazz fans' hearts.

Good times in green n' gold: Sundiata's game winner
Happy days, Sundiata. Thank you for the memories.  (Photo courtesy of rotoninjas.com)

Low Lights:

I would be remiss if I didn’t speak my mind on the elephant in the room, better known as the boos that rained down on Deron Williams.  I begin with a disclaimer that each and every person is entitled to their opinion on the matter.  I understand the boos.  Many felt Deron ran a beloved, hall of fame coach out of town.   Many felt Deron was unhappy in Utah and was bound to leave eventually.  Many felt his general surliness and negativity translated into poor leadership, even though his talent and toughness were rarely called into question.

I get it.  Trust me.  And during introductions, while I would have cheered had I been able to attend, I see why there were some boos mixed in.  I don’t agree with it, but I can certainly accept that not everyone sees it the way I do.

What I can’t wrap my head around is the incessant booing throughout the game.  This has typically been reserved for the vilest of the vile, according to Jazz fans.  Think Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher.  Think 2006-08 Tracy McGrady.  Think Carlos Boozer and anyone else who has slighted Utah in any way, shape or form.  I could only imagine the reception Ric Bucher would get in a pregame, press-in-attendance style introduction.

You’re really gonna put Deron Williams in that class?  REALLY?  I can’t accept that.

Take Deron, a man who, for all of his faults, gave his all to the Utah Jazz for many years.  This is a guy Jazz fans would frequently and fervently defend as the “best point guard in the NBA”, even though the popular choice was and is Chris Paul.  A man whose contributions to Utah reach far beyond his  work on the hardwood (think Point of Hope Foundation).  A man who was the centerpiece to a team reaching the Western Conference Finals in 2007, and rekindled a flame of love for the Jazz that many a casual fan had seen die out post-Stockton-to-Malone.

Those shoes weren’t easy to fill.  Deron Williams was a main part of the reason Utah stayed relevant after relying on its legends for so many years.  Many teams slip into years of rebuilding.  Utah experienced a minor road bump.  Jazz fans can thank Deron Williams in large part for that.  Always taking the high road, Williams has moved  on from the Jazz and continually had nothing but praise for his time in Utah.

Booing Deron Williams during intros was somewhat expected, and understandable to certain point.  Booing him during the game on each touch was over the top, classless and disrespectful to a player who, although no longer  with the team, meant a lot to the Jazz organization, fans and Utah’s community.  I was in attendance for Boozer’s return to ESA (coincidentally Jerry Sloan’s final game as coach of the Utah Jazz).  Boos for Boozer (perhaps the fans were chanting “BOOOOOZ” as they had so many times in the past) faded quickly into silence of indifference.  The boos carried on far longer for Williams.  To me, it’s indefensible.

Going back through my Twitter timeline last night, there was a great outpouring of apologies and appreciation toward Deron.  Obviously it wasn’t every fan in attendance that was booing.  Jazz fans everywhere should be thankful for Williams’ contributions to Utah.  We could’ve tastefully thanked him for that last night and shown that Jazz fans understand the big picture…and most didn’t.  It’s unfortunate.  But, as @LostTacoVendor pointed out last night, fans booed Karl Malone’s return to Utah as a Laker.  So I guess I shouldn’t really be surprised.