No players exemplify the Jazz organization like the understated Earl Watson and Paul Millsap. The Jazz, now 10-5, defeated the Pesky™ Minnesota Timberwolves 108-98 Saturday night at EnergySolutions Arena. Utah has taken advantage of its home-heavy schedule, going 8-2 through 10 home games so far this season. In Salt Lake, Utah has lost by a total of only six points combined.
Earl Watson earned Jazz lifer status on Thursday when he stepped to Dirk Nowitzki and slapped the defending NBA champion in front of a national audience.
[Editors Note: I agree with Charles Barkley in the clip above. Derrick Favors has to stand up for himself when Nowitzki knocked the ball out of his hands. That’s the moment to get in Dirk’s face and show some fire. Nowitzki was out of control all night–if Favors stands up to him there’s a good chance Nowitski does something to get himself ejected instead. Could have saved Favors $25,000, too.]
On Saturday night, Watson broke a tooth taking a charge from Minnesota rookie flopping sensation Ricky Rubio, and further solidified his place as one of the most popular faces of the new Jazz. An NBA journeyman, the 32-year-old UCLA alumnus seems to have finally found a home in Utah.
Though starter Devin Harris continues to struggle, Watson has stepped up from the backup spot and magnetized the fans with his tenacious point-guard play. Asked postgame if he recalled the charge he took from Rubio, Watson smiled. “I remember it well,” he said. “Whatever it takes to win.”
Watson’s play continues to make some Jazz fans clamor for a shakeup to the starting lineup. He played 28 minutes to Harris’ 22, though to be fair, Harris has been battling a bout of the stomach flu for the last couple days.
Head coach Tyrone Corbin praised Watson’s leadership skills in his team’s fast and surprising start to the season. “He’s a pro,” Corbin said. “He understands the game, and he understands how to get his team going. He’s going to fight for everything—he’s not going to give anybody anything. Our guys feed off that when he’s on the floor.”
Whatever it is, Earl Watson has captured the hearts of Utah Jazz fan base. The Watson love could be a sign of gratitude to the hard-working point guard, or an indictment of Harris, whose on-court play sometimes seems to be the weak link in the armor of this upstart group.
Watson finished with 10 points, seven assists, four rebounds, and unlike Thursday against Dallas, got to stay on the floor all the way to the final buzzer. Harris joined him in the backcourt for the final two minutes. When asked why Watson earned the right to finish the game, Corbin said, “The way he played.”
Then there’s Paul Millsap. Always a fan favorite, he’s taken his play to another level this season. Millsap thrived under Jerry Sloan as a backup to Carlos Boozer. Unfortunately, his time to shine last season coincided with the infamous implosion of the team.
Now, with some resemblance of continuity, Millsap is doing what he only knows how to do: Play hard and try his very best to walk off the floor a winner every night. Averaging 15.9 points per game along with 8.7 rebounds, the Louisiana Tech man went 2-1 this week against a terror of challenges in Blake Griffin, Nowitzki and Kevin Love. And coupled with Watson, they make an unlikely duo to be leading the most unlikely successful team in the league.
Asked postgame if he is playing some of the best basketball of his career, the coy Millsap stayed true to his behind-the-scenes form. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t really look back. I’m only as good as my last game.”
When notified that some fans had been chanting “All Star” during a free-throw attempt, he said he had no idea: “I sure appreciate that,” he said.
The easy criticism of this Jazz team is to point out the feast of home games served so far. Later road trips and the condensed schedule could very well tear this young team apart in the coming months. The presence of Watson and Millsap, however, makes me think the worst won’t happen. And while the notion of a “team captain” is trivial, it’s obvious Watson and Millsap deserve that title.
After Thursday night’s 94-91 loss to Dallas, Watson sat in front of his locker for a good half hour stewing.
“It took a while (to get over),” he said, “but I think our team moved forward tonight.”
Speaking like a true general of a young and talented team, Millsap took the stern and respectable route when asked what Saturday’s bounce-back win meant to his squad.
“We accepted the challenge,” he said.
Follow Chris Kamrani on Twitter: @ckamrani