The Utah Jazz moved to 4-and-3 on the young 2011-2012 season with a victory over the Memphis Grizzlies Friday night at Energy Solutions Arena. It was the first time the Jazz had played a playoff caliber team at home, and they remained undefeated, displaying their best defensive effort of the season so far. They also improved their record above .500 for the first time since March of 2011.
If this were a typical season the Jazz would have just finished their pre-season and last night would have been the season opener. However, we all know this isn’t a typical season, and 7 games into this lockout shortened schedule several things have become apparent about this team:
- The starting 5 (Jefferson, Millsap, Hayward, Bell, Harris) have struggled getting off to slow starts to begin the game and 2nd half
- The Jazz 2nd unit/bench continue to play at a faster tempo than the starters, fueled by Earl Watson
- Big Al must improve his passing in the post, yes he’s scoring but there is way too much standing around and watching when he has the ball in the post
- Raja Bell hasn’t gotten past his struggles from last year and it’s clear his minutes need to be given to more productive players
- The Jazz must find a way to bring the same energy they play with at home on the road
- The Jazz nailed both 2011 lottery picks and the “young guys” are ready to play right now
In a condensed 66 game season the Jazz cannot keep getting off to slow starts every game and 2nd half, and hope the bench continues to bail them out. Last night was another example in what has become a disturbing trend. The starting 5 lost the first quarter, allowing nearly 30 points, and were outscored 12-7 to begin the 2nd half, before the Jazz made a substitution.
It’s not just Raja Bell that has gotten off to a slow start this year, Gordon Hayward clearly has struggled adapting to the small forward position. However, unlike Bell who offers little other than the ability to take a charge, Hayward helps the Jazz in multiple ways with his ability to drive and dish, and make an open jumper. Bell actually hit nothing but the backboard last night on a wide-open jumper from the top of the key.
Big Al is off to a great start, but the Jazz first unit is relying on him too much, and there are too many instances of him him getting the ball in the paint with the other 4 guys just standing around and watching. If the Jazz are going to keep the same starting 5 there has to be more players cutting to the hoop and Al has to start passing the ball from the post. Even the Memphis broadcasters referenced this last night during their broadcast, and if they are recognizing this you can be sure opposing coaches are as well.
The most logical solution seems to be inserting Josh Howard into the starting lineup, moving Hayward back to the #2 spot and sending Raja to the bench. However, Howard has provided a nice spark off the bench, so has Alec Burks and it might be asking too much of Burks to insert him into the starting lineup.
Another option is starting CJ Miles. He has also gotten off to another inconsistent start, only playing 9 minutes last night, perhaps starting will get him going and allow Howard to keep providing his spark off the bench. Regardless, the Jazz must improve or a change has to be made. Bell has been a great pro. His trademark has been his rugged defense and physical tenacity and perhaps that style has simply caught up with him and at the age of 35.
Alec Burks is growing in confidence and providing much better production than Bell and it’s not even close. His ability to get to the basket and free-throw line, combined with his excellent passing skills have earned him more playing time. Burks was a part of the unit, along with Howard, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Earl Watson, who turned a 7 point deficit, with 4 minutes left in the 3rd quarter, into a 3 point Jazz lead at the end of the quarter.
That unit displayed the best team defense the Jazz have played all year and that translated into an up-tempo offense that led to easy baskets for Utah, highlighted by a Watson to favors alley-oop dunk, and a Kanter offensive rebound and put-back. The effort by the 2nd unit brought the Jazz crowd to their feet and as Jefferson, Millsap and Hayward re-entered the game they continued the defensive effort, resulting in Memphis shooting 41% from the floor.
The more Burks and Kanter play, the more they are forcing head coach Tyrone Corbin to give them more minutes. Considering that the 19 year old Kanter has barely played any competitive basketball the past 2 years, his ability to step right in and play at such a high level has been extremely impressive. He leads all NBA rookies in rebounding with 5 per game, in just 14 minutes a night.
His rebounding and post defense, combined with Favors shot blocking ability give the Jazz an interior defensive presence they haven’t had since the days of Mark Eaton. Burks has shown a propensity to get to the free-throw line, 15 times in the last 2 games alone, as well as solid rebounding, 8 in his last 3 games. In contrast, Raja hasn’t attempted a single free-throw all season.
Throw in Hayward, who’s going to start making shots, and the Jazz have a shot at having 4 players compete in the “Rookie/Sophmore” game at the All-Star break. I’m not sure but I doubt any other team has ever done that, and if the kids keep getting minutes they have a legitimate shot at making it happen.
Tonight will be a real test for the Jazz, it marks the first road game against a “non-playoff” caliber squad in Golden State. The Warriors lost a tough one last night against the Lakers in L.A. So far the Jazz have failed to really even be competitive in a road game. If this team has any hopes of being a legitimate playoff contender, they must play with the same energy and tenacity that they did last night.
If they get off to another slow start, and if Raja Bell continues to struggle, then don’t be surprised if the Jazz have a new starting lineup when they face Cleveland at home on Tuesday. Several others on this team have demonstrated that they are more than capable of stepping in and contributing. Just how long will Coach Corbin stick with a struggling starting 5? Jazz fans only have about an hour to wait before they find out if this team can compete on the road like they have all year at home.
Topics: Al Jefferson, Alec Burks, CJ Miles, Derrick Favors, Devin Harris, Earl Watson, Enes Kanter, Golden State Warriors, Gordon Hayward, Josh Howard, Mark Eaton, Memphis Grizzlies, Paul Millsap, Raja Bell, Utah Jazz