GAME TIME: Jazz 104, Mavericks 92
What's up with the Utah Jazz? Even though Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer have been in and out of the lineup, their latest win Monday was their sixth in a row and also marks their 10th in their last 11 games.
Utah's streak raises three significant questions:
1. How have they managed to scratch their way to the coveted fourth playoff seed in the West?
• With a radical upgrade in overall speed and quickness. Wesley Matthews, for example, can't shoot, but the rookie never gives up on a play and leads the team in floor burns.
• Ronnie Brewer is another non-shooter who can run his way into easy scores.
• Andrei Kirilenko is thrilled to be back in the starting lineup and is playing with a passion that he hasn't exhibited in several seasons. On Monday, he was forever hustling, ambushing passing lanes (four steals), hitting his shots (6-for-7) and most importantly, locking up Dirk Nowitzki in the fourth quarter to key the win.
• C.J. Miles didn't shoot well (6-for-14 for 17 points) but was always active, aggressive, creative and looking to attack the rim.
• After an atrocious first quarter in which he forced a total of five passes/shots, missed a layup and committed an offensive foul, Deron Williams finally got his legs under him and controlled the offense. He wound up playing excellent defense against Jason Kidd and J.J. Barea, hit his jumpers (7-for-15), and kept the ball moving (15 assists).
When the Jazz played too fast, they made mistakes. And when they played too slowly, their offense stagnated.
But Williams always seemed to ensure that the team maintained the most advantageous tempo -- running under control, lots of quick-hitting ball- and player-movement and forever looking to find the open man. Plus, whenever the Jazz desperately needed a score, they ran a 1-2-2 or 1-4 spread set and let Williams pull, go, or drive-and-kick.
• Paul Millsap had an All-Star performance.
• The only relatively inferior athlete who played significant minutes was Mehmet Okur. The guy is smart, can shoot from long range and has good hands, but he can't run or defend and is very slow off his feet.
• Utah's new-found quickness was most noticeable in its defense. Post-up players were circled and entry passes tipped. Millsap and Kirilenko executed speedy baseline rotations. Wing and reversal passes were challenged.
• The only real problem the Jazz had was their spotty defense of weak-side curls.
2. Is Millsap worth the lengthy, mega-bucks contract he signed during the off-season?
• He was 10-for-16 from the field and scored his 25 points in a variety of ways: Power layups. Face-up step-back jumpers. A flip and three free throws that were earned on the run. Popping off a weak-side screen, then nailing a 17-footer. Making several slashing dive cuts that led to easy layups and dunks.
• His single assist was a beauty. After getting his hands on a tough offensive rebound, Millsap make a nifty touch pass that Miles turned into a layup.
• On defense, he played Nowitzki aggressively and was hurt mostly when he had to help and left Nowitzki open to receive kick-out-passes and then bury jumpers. All told, Nowitzki tallied 16 of his 28 points against Millsap.
• On the other hand, Millsap shut down Drew Gooden and made several timely rotations (four blocks and several intimidations).
• He was also a mighty presence on the boards (a team-high nine rebounds) and set numerous sturdy screens.
3. Can the Jazz compete over the long haul without Boozer?
• There's no doubt that Boozer is stronger than Millsap, has a better left hand, is a better position rebounder and owns a more refined post-up game. But Millsap is fast enough for the Jazz to run a four-man fast break. He's also more athletic than Boozer, plays better defense, has greater mobility, is more effective without the ball and is both quicker off his feet and quicker with the ball in his hands.
• What aspects of Millsap's game still need to be improved? His post-up moves. His ability to play defense without fouling. And his tendency to force shots -- two airballs versus the Mavs -- in heavy traffic. Also, it was clear that Millsap wasn't used to playing 41 minutes, and to some degree, he wilted in the endgame.
• But Millsap is still days away from his 25th birthday and is only in his fourth NBA season. Boozer will undoubtedly be elsewhere next year, and Millsap is already on the verge of becoming Utah's go-to big man.
• The young man is an All-Star in the making.
During their dismantling of Dallas, Utah's future was on display. In Williams, Millsap, a rejuvenated Kirilenko, the continued improvement of Miles, the unabated hustle of Matthews, the opportunistic baseline game of Brewer ... Utah's future is now .
We've all seen, and gotten used to, players banging their fists against the heart-side of their chests after particularly dramatic dunks, blocked shots, game-changing baskets and so on. They claim that the gesture arouses the crowd, their teammates and also makes them play with increased aggression.
It does seem odd that an NBA player needs to resort to such histrionics to amp up his competitive chops, but whatever.
The feeling from this corner of the basketball world is that the true impulse that motivates this exhibition is a public demonstration that the player involved has more heart than thou.
OK. This is part of the modern-day ritual. I don't approve, but it is what it is.
On the opposite end of the courage-scale, though, it's incredibly rare for a player to admit that he and/or his team habitually demonstrate cowardly responses to pressure-packed situations.
But here comes Matt Barnes of the Orlando Magic, who last week was quoted as saying this: "We got no heart."
Was he including himself in this statement? Or everybody on the team except him?
No doubt, Barnes' aim here was to challenge his teammates to play better, be more aggressive and play more courageously. And the Magic's most recent wins over Boston and Atlanta certainly indicate that Barnes' teammates took his message to heart. But in the long run, his rather insulting opinion has to have a negative effect on the team's chemistry -- even though what he said might indeed be true.
Perhaps Barnes should have voiced his disapproval in the privacy of Orlando's locker room.
In any event, this incident should be remembered as the Magic's season progresses.
I know that comparing the talents of Kobe and LeBron is a perpetual debate. But which player do you think would have the better impact if they traded teams? I can see LeBron continuing to make the Lakers favorites to win a ring, but I'm not sure that Kobe would have a similar impact on the Cavs. - Ron, Walled Lake, MI
The one overwhelming reason why Kobe is a better fit with the Lakers is that the triangle is ultimately a shooter's offense. And shooting is precisely LeBron's primary weakness. Another consideration would be LeBron's willingness to play more without the ball than he currently does. Otherwise, LeBron would add more physicality to the finesse-oriented triangle and increase L.A.'s attacks on the basket. Also, Phil Jackson would undoubtedly make whatever adjustments necessary to incorporate James' monstrous talents into his system.
Kobe with Cleveland might be a dicier situation, mainly because it would be too easy for him to dominate the ball even more than LeBron currently does. Plus, Kobe's re-uniting with Shaq would certainly create serious problems.
In other words, I agree with your supposition that James would help the Lakers more than Bryant would help the Cavs.
TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY
Rod Chando is the highly successful boys varsity coach at Red Hook High School in upstate New York. He was also an excellent shooting guard in his own high school and college careers -- and was still a potent scorer when playing for the Woodstock Joneses in various tournaments and against several prison teams in the area.
Since Rod -- I called him "Ro" because his D was silent -- had the key to the high school gym, he'd preside over summertime runs with a select group of players. That's where some of his schoolboy hooplings would get a chance to compete against the Joneses' crew of experienced players.
One of Ro's kids was Adam Clay, a 6-foot-7, 230-pound farm boy who was strong, willing, but dreadfully raw.
"Charley," Ro said to me, "show Adam no mercy. Just talk to him while you're playing and tell him why you're doing what you're doing."
Sure enough, I beat on Adam until he started responding in kind. All the while, I pointed out the proper techniques, angles and pressure points of big-man play. He was a wonderful young man, eager to learn first-hand and willing to pay the price. And Adam went on to have a terrific high school career.
Even so, I always felt a bit guilty about showing Adam "no mercy." However, just the other day, I received an e-mail that did more than assuage my guilt.
The Lakers were playing in Philadelphia, and here's the pre-game message that Phil Jackson sent: "I ran into a kid from Red Hook who played for Rod Chando in high school. His name is Adam Clay. He was very appreciative of the personal attention you gave him and said that your elbows taught him a lot about bball."
Ah, in a flash, all of the bone-chips, arthritis and haunting fears that have plagued my post-active career now seem well worth the physical and psychic discomfort.
Now, it's my turn to thank Adam.