The Jazz are etching their identity in stone early on in the season. After a rough start, Utah is rolling — and that’s all that matters
So what nickname do we give this Jazz team? Actually, who cares? Utah is winning, and right now, that’s all that matters.
The Jazz are 9-4 — winners of eight of their last nine — including recent wins at Denver Sunday night and Tuesday’s 108-79 thrashing of the visiting Los Angeles Clippers. If that proved one thing, it’s this Utah team has found its identity and it shouldn’t be too hard to identify with.
Team basketball. Every Jazz fan knows it. It was Jerry Sloan’s orchestra during his 23 years at the helm: Pass, cut, defend and, when on offense, simply take what the defense gives you.
Tuesday night against the Chris Paul-less Clippers, Utah took and took and took some more. Maybe Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Paul should file a joint copyright infringement lawsuit against Earl Watson and Jeremy Evans. “Lob City” seems to be sitting on the end of the Jazz bench, just itching for eye contact with his point guard partner in crime.
Sure, the schedule has been courteous to the Jazz, as they have had the pleasure of gracing EnergySolutions Arena eight times in 13 games so far this season. But look back to how the season started, a cheap-thrill Hollywood disaster film was Utah’s opener in Los Angeles. Couple that with blowout performances at Denver and San Antonio, and the Jazz were on the wrong side of looking toward crossing their fingers once the ping-pong balls began to fly again.
Now, nine games later, Utah is the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference.
[Editor’s note: Let’s say that one more time: Utah is the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference.]
“It was fun, which is the way it should be when we play hard,” said CJ Miles, who had easily his best performance of the year Tuesday against the Clippers, totaling 19 points, five rebounds and four steals. “You can just see it. Everybody is confident in the way they’re playing.”
Confidence is one thing — a total team facelift in roughly two weeks is another thing.
Credit must go to Utah’s coaching staff for finding a way to gel this once confounding group of professional basketball players into a legitimate mold. The Al Jefferson-Paul Millsap frontcourt seems to be working out just fine now as Millsap’s offensive game has taken center stage over the course of the last four games. Jefferson, right now, is playing a decent Robin to his counterpart’s Batman.
“We had a good team effort and everybody had a lot of energy,” Millsap said postgame. “We attacked first, and we came out with the win.”
Maybe that’s it. In recent years, Jazz teams have faltered once pushed back on their heels. Over the last nine games, Utah is pushing first and not budging, let alone allowing opposing teams to dictate the pace of the game.
Defensively, the Jazz have found a rhythm. The first four games of the season, Utah was allowing roughly 105 points per game. That’s been chopped down by over 10 points in the nine games since.
“If everybody takes initiative to guard their guy and help each other, we’re a good defensive team,” Millsap said.
“Offense is going to come,” Miles added. “Defensively, we have to do that every night. The biggest thing was just being aggressive.”
Utah’s defense didn’t allow Griffin to get into any sort of comfort zone. The high-flyer had 10 points on 5-of-12 shooting. Chauncey Billups was 3-of-12, while Randy Foye was 4-of-14. Some nights, the opposition will have bad luck. Right now, the Jazz seem to be the beneficiaries of defensive karma.
“That’s what we’re talking about. Forty-eight minutes, man,” said head coach Tyrone Corbin. “We’re continuing to build on what we talk about. We’re still learning. We talk about how we want to set a way we play.”
Half-court offense and a respectable effort on the defensive end? Sounds like the ghost of Sloan (in the Barklian sense) is somehow still with the Jazz. But make no mistake, this is Corbin’s team — he has done a tremendous job 13 games into the season figuring out the strengths and weaknesses of this squad.
The question everyone asks now is: Can the Jazz continue this effort away from Salt Lake City when the tightened schedule beckons in February and March? Seems like right now, Utah is enjoying itself and will cross that bridge when it gets there.
“We’re playing together and holding each other accountable and going out there and getting it done,” said Evans, whose dunks electrified the eager ESA crowd.
“I guess people know who we are now,” Millsap said.
That’s the first trick. The second trick is making sure they don’t forget you were ever there.
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ckamrani