Unbelievable Jazz


March 20, 2012; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Kendrick Perkins (5) defends against Utah Jazz center Al Jefferson (25) during the second half at Energy Solutions Arena. The Jazz defeated the Thunder 97-90. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-US PRESSWIRE

 

I have no idea what to say.

I literally spent the entire day trying to come up with a way to describe my thoughts on Utah’s win over OKC last night – and all I could conjure was a faint gurgling sound followed by some pathetic drooling.

Let me just say this: that win was huge. Maybe even bigger than the win in LA. For one thing it puts to rest all that talk of the Jazz getting lucky on Sunday – Kobe had a bad game, said the haters. Riiiiiiiight. And then Durant likewise forgot to show up on Tuesday … uh-huh.

I won’t overpraise the Jazz just yet – there’s far too much work to be done before Utahns can uncork the sparkling cider. For one thing, the Jazz still trail Houston by half a game in the race to obtain that eighth and final playoff spot.

The good news!

Out of Houston’s next 10 games, six are against playoff-bound teams, including Dallas and Chicago. The Jazz, on the other hand, have a fairly easy (albeit road-heavy) schedule during which they play only four quality teams (and a case could be made about Boston in that regard). Of course, those 10 games are followed by a double header against number two seed San Antonio (first in Texas, then in Utah).

All signs point to April 11 as the day of days – Utah visits Houston for a monstrous showdown. He who wins that battle, wins the season series …

I predict the Jazz will likely finish off these next 12 games 6-6 (there’s my cautious attitude sinking in again), bringing their record to a not-to-shabby 30-28. I likewise see the Rockets splitting their next 10 games, bringing their tally to 30-27. So that game may have far greater implications than I’m letting on here …

Then again, Utah may continue to surprise, beat the Hawks, Celtics and Clippers; split the Spurs series and end up a few games ahead of Houston by the time they meet. If Houston follows my scenario, the Jazz can go 8-4 and carry a nice edge over their western conference foes.

But it’s all for naught if the Jazz completely falls apart (as they’re capable of doing). Big as these wins against LA and OKC were, they were wins Utah was never supposed to achieve. And so, now that we’ve seen what the Jazz can do in an underdog scenario, it’s time to find out if they’re capable of winning games they’re supposed to win – namely tomorrow night in Sac-Town.

Everything the Jazz achieved over the past few days could unravel in the wake of silly losses to teams who have more or less cashed it in on the season.

And then there’s red-hot Phoenix, winners of five straight before Miami squashed their fire. The Suns are sitting dangerously close to the Jazz – just a game and a half back – and seem poised to pull off an upset.

I’m just saying! Keep your expectations in check, enjoy the wins, make up hefty excuses for the losses, and then pray to the basketball gods to give us a freaking break!

Beating OKC was still impressive, though …

I’m not trying to sour the mood. In actuality, I just finished my last negative thought. Now onto the overzealous, butt-kissing, probably completely unnecessary, at least 12-hours behind schedule phase.

Utah straight-up owned OKC for four quarters. This wasn’t like the win in LA, where the Jazz essentially narrowly escaped a brush with Death himself. The Jazz took the lead from the Thunder and never relinquished their dominancy. Durant and co. made their runs, sure, but Utah answered back with poise, confidence and terrific execution.

Granted, the Jazz had their fair share of scares (see what I did there, and again right there …). First, Big Al missed a baseline jumper (packaged nicely in a pass from Milsap), then Westbrook nailed a 3-pointer bringing the Thunder within three (87-84). Hayward missed his own 3-pointer, followed promptly by a pair of Westbrook free throws (87-86).

By this point, my shirt was off, two windows had been broken, and I clutched my 50-inch plasma screen in a deadly vice grip. Don’t even ask how that’s possible.

Oddly enough, Jazz fans in attendance didn’t cheer, boo, or do much of anything during those waning moments, so worried were they that the Jazz would crumble against the pressure of taking down the best team in the west that they more or less sat on their hands out of unabashed fear. Some of the crowd’s reactions were classic – I swear I saw an elderly man order 14 hotdogs, eat them all at once, choke, nearly die, then receive mouth-to-mouth from Matt Harpring. And the man never had a clue. Seriously, it was that kind of atmosphere.

But then a miracle – the Jazz didn’t fold. Instead, Milsap took a pass from Hayward and tossed in two easy points. On their next possession, Hayward drew a foul and sank both free throws (that boy has some stones). A botched call from the refs gave the ball back to OKC (seriously, look at that play again – logic will tell you that a ball only goes up when someone pushes it up). No matter, Hayward played terrific D on Durant (who subsequently threw his arms in the air as if to say, “Oh hell no!”), which led to Milsap plastering Nazr Mohammed’s shell-shocked face all over the court with one of his patented high-arcing jumpers. 93-87.

The game wasn’t over. Harden dropped a triple to pull the Thunder within … a triple. But Hayward retaliated with a beautiful pass to Big Al, who took one step and laid the ball inside the hoop.

A few stupid shots (including one by Milsap) later and the game was over. Jazz win 97-90.

Wow.

The biggest point to make about this game was the many hands that touched the ball down the stretch. Not counting Jamaal Tinsley’s downright disgusting (in a good way) performance, three Jazzman – Hayward, Milsap and Big Al – had a hand in every play during the game’s pivotal moments, as opposed to Utah relying entirely on Milsap, or Big Al to make the final shots.

That’s the difference here, folks.

Before the game I asked whether Jefferson would attempt to put the game on his shoulders by throwing down 30 points, or whether he would help his team net a victory with 10 or 15. I was off by one point: Al had 16 behind Milsap’s 20. Four other Jazzmen scored in double digits, a remarkable trend that had as much to do with the Jazz’s current win-streak as anything else.

I read on another blog (SLC dunk, methinks) of this Jazz team being likened to the Detroit Pistons group that defied all odds and upset the Lakers (with Malone and Payton no less) back in the 2004 finals without anything close to a superstar on their roster. Detroit won with teamwork, camaraderie and unselfish play. That’s what this Jazz team needs to do in order to keep winning.

How far will they go?

It’s hard to say. There’s so much more basketball to play (another rhyme). Add in injuries to Howard, Bell and Watson and the Jazz remain far from 100-percent. Plus, when those guys eventually come back, will Corbin again be pressured to play the seniors ahead of the talent?

Tellingly, my favorite lineup thus far is: Harris, Hayward, Miles, Milsap, and Big Al (so long as they allow Gordon to play his two-man game with Milsap in close games). I like Tinsley, Hayward, Burks, Favors, and Kanter as my second unit (yeah, Gordon plays the whole game – his passing is just too good).

Throw in Bell, Howard and Watson and things get dicey.

Bell, unfortunately, is done. On a good night he can give you eight or nine points and piss off the opposition with some hefty trash talk. Howard remains a defensive liability, although his offense has improved lately. And Watson … well, I like his energy, but Tinsley has demonstrated an ability to provide energy and offense.

I’m curious to see how Corbin handles these situations (which may, if done correctly, put him back amongst the top coaches of the year). It really comes down to his coaching. He has talent. We’ve seen it uncorked over the past few days.

Now he needs to figure out how to best utilize it for the rest of the season …   

Tags: Burks Corbin Durant Favors Harden Harris Hayward Kanter Milsap Okc Sac-town Utah Jazz Westbrook