By Matthew Coles
Sure, Friday night’s 102-99 win over Philadelphia was Derrick Favors’ coming out party and the young Jazzmen found a way to close out a game at the end, but the fortunes of Utah’s early season changed on a few hustle plays in the second quarter.
When Paul Millsap re-entered the game early in the second period, the Jazz were down by 13 points and their season had consisted of nine quarters of uninspired, weak basketball. Millsap couldn’t shoot a lick in the game (4-of-16) but he did something much more valuable — he became a leader by example.
“It was time for us to get back to playing Utah Jazz basketball,” Millsap said, though all the turnover in the organization since midseason 2010-11 had made it seem unlikely that the players knew what “Jazz basketball” meant anymore.
Millsap, who has been with Utah longer than anyone other than CJ Miles, soon let his teammates see what the Jazz have exemplified for more than two decades.
The Jazz and the crowd had been in a shell-shocked swoon after the over-the-top pyrotechnic display that accompanied pre-game introductions. But the players earned their first in-game standing ovations from a pair of hustle plays, not fancy shots or passes. When Millsap mopped the floor with his body and outwrestled a pair of Sixers for a loose ball, Jazz fans saw something that had been lacking in all three games.
Philadelphia coach Doug Collins noticed what Jazz fans have taken for granted all these years.
“In the second quarter, the physicality of the game changed. They started knocking us around. They got some loose balls and they started getting to the free throw line,” the astute former TNT analyst observed.
A few minutes later, Gordon Hayward hung in the air long enough to block ground-bound Elton Brand and the crowd erupted. The Jazz served notice that things weren’t going to come easily anymore for opponents, at least in this game. The Jazz started holding screens longer, hip-checking cutters, attacking the rim, and banging underneath the basket. Favors was playing aggressively on both ends of the floor. It became contagious.
Coach Ty Corbin needs Hayward to mix it up on a nightly basis, just like the other Jazz player with the choir boy face who became known as one of the league’s nastiest players — Utah legend John Stockton. The coach said the second-year forward “needs to learn that you’ve got to be strong — you almost have to be a little nasty. They’re going to put bodies on you, they’re going to put hands on you. He’s capable of doing it,” and Hayward showed it Friday.
The Jazz, outside of Millsap, may not have even known it themselves but Brand told me he didn’t think Jazz pride and trademark nastiness would be absent for long.
“We knew they’d come hard in their home opener after two pretty lopsided losses. In that second quarter, Utah definitely started fighting harder. They got to the 50-50 balls more than we did,” Brand said.
At the other end, the Jazz cashed in on wild Devin Harris drives toward the basket. They weren’t pretty but he was getting the calls and he was forcing the action. Corbin essentially told Harris when he pulled him off the court just four minutes into the game that the point guard had to push it or he wouldn’t be playing much.
The first three games of Utah’s half-court offense looked a lot like my Jr. Jazz team trying to run a set play. Corbin sees what we all see — this team is best served pushing the tempo. Earl Watson got up and down the court when he spelled Harris as well. But the missing link was the physical defense and the hustle.
“It’s so much easier to run when we get stops, as opposed to taking the ball up and trying to run that way. When we play aggressively defensively, that allows me to get in transition, that allows me to play my best and guys get easier shots that way,” Harris said.
So even if most of the Jazzmen have forgotten or may not know what Jazz basketball is, the rest of the league remembers. Lou Williams, who waltzed to the basket on his first couple drives of the game, also noticed a change — and expected it.
“That’s how Utah plays. As long as I’ve been in the league, they’ve been a very aggressive basketball team,” he said. “They will beat you up.”
It remains to be seen if the Jazz will continue playing with passion and heart — and they may not currently be built for consistency — but they’ve had the key to success all along.
Brand said it best: “When Utah plays that physical, they can beat anybody.”