Jazz Staying Alive

April 2, 2012; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) drives to the basket on Utah Jazz power forward Paul Millsap (24) during the first quarter of the game at the Rose Garden. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-US PRESSWIRE

I know I’m late with this post – sorry, it’s tough to think straight when you’re attacked by a menacing sickness that leaves you both mentally incapacitated and physically incapable of moving your arms. In other words, I have a cold.

Plus I’m tackling The Hunger Games. And I have to say, reading about little kids killing themselves in ginormous arenas makes everything else in life seem less trivial.

Of course, last night I sat on the edge of my seat as the Jazz delivered another one of their helter skelter performances, and ultimately beat Portland 102-97.

Seriously, could the Jazz be any more pain-inducing? Watching them is akin to eating an ultimate bacon cheeseburger – it’s amazing, but damn, it’s probably gonna kill me someday.

Here’s how the game went: The Jazz entered Portland with a three game losing streak hanging precariously close to their heads. Naturally, Utah came out sluggish while Portland lit it up from behind the arc and eventually chiseled out a 14-point lead. The Jazz fought back (again) in the second and third quarters and even led 83-78 heading into the fourth period thanks to some sharp shooting from Paul Milsap (who finished with 31 points).

Utah came out swinging in the fourth quarter, but could not contain red-hot Wesley Matthews (33 points) and thus relinquished a seven point lead, and fell behind 97-94 with only a few minutes remaining.

Thankfully, Portland committed a couple of turnovers: first, PG Raymond Felton dribbled the ball off his foot as he tried to make a move from the top of the 3-point line; and then later Jamaal Tinsley (yes, he actually played!) stole an inbound pass, then dropped in a nice assist to Milsap under the basket who put in the easy deuce. Just like that, Utah walked away with a much needed road win that keeps them in playoff contention.

What’s with the lineup?

Utah tried something different last night, something I was fairly impressed with: they moved Milsap to small forward (like they said they’d do all season) and put Derrick Favors in at power forward and Big Al in at center. Smart move. That gave Milsap more flexibility and more touches on the ball; Favors could work alongside somebody other than his ailing bench buddy Enes Kanter, and Big Al didn’t have to exert so much energy on the boards.

Not too shabby, Corbin.

I must say this moved impressed me, even as the Jazz looked like they lost the game. The lineup provides athleticism, size and strength. Plus it keeps CJ on the bench, where he belongs at this point (especially during road games).

In the negative column, Big Al played terribly, admitting as much in his post game interviews. He scored 13 points off 6-of-17 shooting, and made some costly decisions down the stretch – one of his missed shots even made Corbin go into a swearing, Jerry Sloan-induced rage (at least it looked that way, particularly when assistant coach Scott Layden looked completely taken aback by the blow up). During one instance, Tinsley lost the ball, but recovered it in the ensuing panic at half-court, lobbed a pass to Big Al who had four options: A) Pass it to a wide open Gordy, B) Hold onto the ball, and reset the play, C) Put the ball on the floor and try to draw a foul, or D) Jack up one of his patented putt-shots from 10-feet away with 18-seconds remaining on the shot clock. Guess which one he chose?

For the Jazz to move forward, Big Al needs to realize it’s not his responsibility to carry the team on his back. I don’t mind some of the shots he takes, but when he does so in a one dimensional manner (IE, not looking to pass no matter the circumstance), that’s when my tolerance level for him drops considerably. Big Al plays best when he and Gordy run the two-man scheme, draw defenses and then kick the ball to cutting players in the paint, or drive when the defense fails to close in. When Big Al keeps his head up, he HELPS the Jazz win games. When he turns his back to the basket and pads his stats (no matter his intentions), he’s as volatile a threat as the opposing team.

Milsap, on the other hand, provides so many different types of offense that he has become almost invaluable to this franchise. He doesn’t need to score 30 points every night, but when his game sets fire, the team follows suite. Probably because, unlike Big Al, Milsap’s game features a lot of wheeling and dealing – he rarely plays with his back to the basket, but instead hits jump shots and collects garbage buckets. His play keeps the offense rolling along, and doesn’t lull his teammates to sleep. I don’t expect him to hit the big shots down the stretch, but if I had my choice, I’d choose his style of play over Big Al’s any day of the week.

What’s up with Matthews?

Did we trade Matthews? Did we cut him? Tell him to go take a hike and turn our backs on him? The answer to all of those questions is a resounding NO. The Jazz gave Matthews a solid chance, despite his being overlooked in the draft. Coach Jerry Sloan even moved him into the starting lineup, and allowed him to roam freely on the court. In all my years watching the Jazz, I never saw anybody get as much wiggle room from Coach Sloan as Matthews, especially with his 3-point shooting. (Even Kyle Korver was like WTF?)

Of course, as many a Jazz fan know, Portland lured the energetic guard away with a five year, $34 million deal that Utah had the opportunity to match, but didn’t. I’m fairly ignorant when it comes to the NBA’s financial schemes, but I’ve been told that Matthews could have rejected the offer and stayed in Utah; that the team offered him a deal which Matthews ultimately turned down.

I don’t think Utah was saying, “Sorry dude, we like you but you’re not THAT worth it.” I think they were saying, “We really like you, but can’t afford such a hefty sum and still bring enough pieces to compete (ala D-Will).”

So now, I ask, why is Matthews so doggedly determined to beat Utah? A team that loved him, gave him the ultimate opportunity and played a pivotal part in his lucrative set-up in Portland? I’m not saying he can’t play hard, but last night he looked like a man on a mission – something I’d expect from D-Will, Korver or even Boozer, but not Matthews. After he hit that stunning 3-pointer that gave the T-Blazers a 3-point edge with two minutes remaining, he looked like Tommy Riordan after he took out Mad Dog in one punch. Matthews obviously holds a grudge against his former team for not matching Portland’s offer – even if that offer continues to look ludicrous, even today.

Playoff Picture

I’m getting tired of writing about whether or not the Jazz will make the playoffs. The win last night keeps them in the hunt, even if they remain one disparaging game behind Houston (who doesn’t play until Friday). By this point, Utah understands the importance of these next two home games – against Golden State and Phoenix. They must win. But they cannot win each night by allowing teams to go up 13 or 14 points before they make their move – they must take control early and never relent. I expect a fairly easy victory tomorrow night against the Warriors, but then again, when have the Jazz made anything easy?

Other notes: Coach what’s-his-name from Portland received only one or two camera shots the entire game; I actually missed Nate McMillan’s detached, glaring frame lending itself to the screen every five or six minutes. Portland fans rock. I’m not sure if they’re just bored, or that committed to the team, but that place was electrifying last night; when Portland retook the lead, I felt like I was neck-deep in playoff waters – imagine if Portland had done the smart thing and drafted Durant over Oden! That place would be rockin’ like the days of old when Arvydas Sobonis lurked underneath the basket. Good ole Sabo.

Topics: Big Al, D-Will, Gordy, Matthews, Milsap, Portland, Utah Jazz, Win

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