Archive for January, 2012

Last Night’s Lessons: The Portland Win

Last night felt like a big deal. It was just another regular season game about a third into the season, but it felt like the Jazz needed this win. Ten minutes before the game, I was frantically searching for reasons why we would win the game:

Hayward lit it up against the Kings, maybe this means his confidence is back.

Maybe our offense actually works better when Big Al isn’t playing.

Maybe Lamarcus Aldridge is sick of being the poster child for the Hipster All-Stars (The Hipster All-stars are guys who aren’t actually All-stars, should be, and thus have a cult following of internet bloggers who are constantly decrying the injustice of the All-Star voting system. And yes, Paul Millsap is a Hipster All-star), and he’ll take the game off.

Two hours later, the Jazz had escaped with a victory. Initially too overcome with relief to draw any conclusions from the game, I’ve since regained enough of my mental faculties to know that this game taught us a few things. So here they are, the 3 things we learned last night:

1. Gordon Hayward took one giant leap forward last night. Granted, we at sloan v. sheed search every, passed-over obscurity of every Jazz game to find ways to compliment the G-man, but we didn’t have to look far last night. In the past, whenever Gordon has had a noticeably good game, it’s been because he’s either A) feeling it and shooting really well AND filling up the box score with non-scoring plays or B) filling up the box score with non-scoring plays. Last night, for the first time, we got an option C) he was shooting poorly, but he still provided offensive production when we needed it AND he filled up the box score with non-scoring plays. The understated play of the game was his block that set up Millsap’s score in the last minute, but Hayward gave the Jazz exactly what we needed down the stretch. On a night when we were going to live and die with how well he played (see: the difference between the first and the second half), he stepped up. He nailed free throws when they mattered, made a game-changing block, and forced shots down on an off-night. Great players have the confidence to knock down shots even after dreadful slumps, and last night, Hayward took one more step toward becoming that kind of great player.

2. In a condensed season, depth means way more than it should. In your typical NBA season, depth is a little overrated. There are enough days off between games for stars to recover, and there are enough games in the season for your team to make the playoffs and make a deep run even if your star is injured for a large chunk of the regular season. Not this season. This season, teams like the Jazz have an extra advantage. Last night’s victory, without Al Jefferson and without Raja Bell, was a prime example of this phenomenon.

3. We still need Big Al. As much as I love to hate on Big Al, our half-court offense is a disaster without him. Ever since he has learned to pass, the double-teams that he commands are invaluable. He opens up shots for Millsap, and he carries a scoring load that the combination of Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors cannot match. The Jazz won last night because Hayward stepped up, Millsap reached down deep and pulled out one of the gutsiest rebounding performances I’ve witnessed, a combination of Jeremy Evans’ energy and the ESA crowd lifted the team up for one final 4th quarter run, and Enes Kanter played lockdown defense on Aldridge in the 4th quarter. Those kinds of things can’t happen every game. The Jazz need the methodical consistency that Big Al brings the offense.

Golden State Draft Pick Watch: January 27

As the final piece of the Deron Williams trade, Utah has the rights to Golden State’s draft pick this year as long as the pick doesn’t end up landing from 1-7, placing Jazz fans in the predicament of wanting Golden State to be dreadful, but not spectacularly dreadful.  We’re going to start breaking down how well that slightly-worse-than-mediocre balance is being achieved every Friday, and we’ll somewhat arbitrarily decide when we should be rooting for Golden State to win and when we want them to lose.

Our best-case scenario is to get a draft pick in the 8-10 range, meaning that seven teams need to be worse than the Warriors.  Right now, I struggle to fathom how any NBA team could possibly be worse at basketball than the Charlotte Bobcats, and the Washington Wizards have already fired their coach and threatened to set records for early-season futility and as an extra bonus are stubbornly starting Andray Blatche (who gets roughly the same treatment at home games that Carlos Boozer gets these days at the ESA).  They’re locks to be worse than Golden State.  Next, it looks like this is officially Detroit’s tanking year, and New Orleans will be in way too deep of a hole by the time Eric Gordon returns from injury.

Oh yeah, and Toronto is a terrible, injury-prone team that could only win a game on the road if the home team missed a hundred easy shots in the fourth quarter and two overtimes (can’t… resist… self-loathing…).  So that’s five.  We need two more teams to lock up that pick (unless tragedy strikes and Golden State wins the lottery), and one of them is looking like the Kings.  While they have shown flashes of dignity over the season, they also downed a coach and now have lost their leading scorer for a couple of weeks.  The last team to be worse than the Warriors is up for grabs.  The standings right now say New Jersey, but the Nets are looking better and will probably get a bunch of easy wins over all of those Eastern Conference glorified farm-league teams.  I’m still not convinced that Cleveland is anything but a terrible team even though they’ve scratched out a few early wins, so they might be the ticket.  We’ll have to stay on the lookout.

Over the course of the next week, the Warriors play at Oklahoma City and home games against Sacramento and Utah.  If they lose to OKC and Utah (OBVIOUSLY), that puts the Jazz in good shape.  It would also be advantageous for the Warriors to knock out the Kings next Tuesday to make sure that the Kings stay at the bottom of the standings.  The concern, of course, is that Stephen Curry is back from injury in all his Davidson-pride glory.

Current draft spot: 8th-Tie

Potential draftee of the week: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

The Artist to be Known as C.J. Miles

There were times when I would come into the game, and on my first possession the ball would come to me with three seconds on the shot clock and then I would have to put up a 3-pointer. I would miss, and then everyone would be mad at me.

– C.J. Miles

Of course C.J. Miles said that. I might not have even needed to attribute the quote to him for devoted Jazz fans, especially those who follow C.J. on twitter, to have recognized its source. Only C.J. comes off the bench and immediately jacks up a three, and only C.J. would justify that shot by saying there were three seconds on the shot clock. You know, because the ONLY thing you can do with the basketball and three seconds on the shot clock is shoot a three. That said, he is absolutely right. Every Jazz fan has stored a file somewhere in the back of his or her mind labeled “C.J. is a Gunner” that contains the memories of roughly 150 off-balance threes that C.J. has bricked off various parts his of the basket. We’ve all seen it, and it happens just like C.J. himself said. He comes in off the bench. He gets the ball with a low shot clock. He throws up an ill-advised shot. It clangs off the side of the rim. The crowd groans, and as C.J. so aptly put it, we’re all mad at him.

But this isn’t the only C.J. Miles. Somewhere in my mind, and occasionally on the court, there exists a C.J. Miles Basketball Player. Not just C.J. the Gunner, but C.J. the gamer. The C.J. Miles of my basketball dreams. The Ideal C.J. This C.J. Miles, who I will henceforth call Ideal C.J., only shoots threes when he’s spotting-up. Ideal C.J. attacks the basket whenever he sees an opening. Ideal C.J. only settles for jump shots if he’s wide open, and never shoots them if he’s not squared-up. Ideal C.J. is active on defense. He reads the passing lanes, makes breaks on the ball, and forces turnovers. Ideal C.J. uses the length and lateral speed that C.J. the Gunner wastes to become a lockdown perimeter defender. Most of all, Ideal C.J. knows his role and executes it. He doesn’t force, he feels. He acts within the flow of the offense to deliver the back-breaking three from the top of the key, or to drive hard and throw down a momentum-swinging dunk. He picks his spots and he nails them. This is Ideal C.J.

The best part about this clip is the very thing that drives Jazz fans to insanity. It’s the way C.J. makes an impressive play with a fairly high degree of difficulty seem almost effortless. He reads Andrew Bynum’s eyes and breaks on the ball by throwing his long arm in the passing lane, and it’s all in one swift, smooth, beautiful motion. This is Ideal C.J. and this is exactly what maddens us. Why can’t he always play like this? He makes it look so easy, so why isn’t it? Why am I not currently writing about All-Star C.J. instead of a only-occasionally-present C.J.? Every time C.J. releases with that sweet lefty-shooting form of his, I expect the ball to go in. So why doesn’t it? Why does it miss more than 62% of the time?

C.J.’s issues all center around the intangible, mental aspect of the game. He has all of the physical tools to be a game-changing player in this league, but too often he settles for 7th best on a Jazz team that is largely considered to be rebuilding. Everyday C.J., the one we usually get, is a likable guy. Admittedly, I’m attached because C.J. has been a Jazzman his whole career, but I want to believe in this guy. Perhaps more than any other player in the last three years, I have wanted C.J. to succeed–to become Ideal C.J., day in and day out. Maybe C.J.’s destiny is to light up the points column for a 20-win Charlotte Bobcats. Or maybe, one day, we’ll all remember this period of C.J.’s career as the time when we thought of C.J. in terms of potential. As C.J. the Gunner versus Ideal C.J. Maybe on that day, we won’t have to call him anything but C.J. Miles. That’s the day for which I hope and long. The day Ideal C.J. and C.J. Miles become one.

Jazz Rankings: At the buzzer…

At the end of last night’s game, we were all confronted with an immediate resolution to the question that has been circulating for about a year now: who takes the last shot?  I know that there are statistics about performance in the clutch time designed to tell us who is the best choice, but as we all know, clutch time is about more than statistics; it’s about going with whatever your gut tells you.  That’s why running isolation plays for reckless, volume-scoring wings becomes an inexplicably good idea and Ron Artest makes shots that swing NBA Championships.  With that in mind, I decided to rank the Jazz players from 1-13 by the gut-check test- who I would feel most comfortable taking the last shot to the least comfortable.  Without further ado:

CONFIDENCE LEVEL: We got this.

1.  Paul Millsap.  He’s simply the best player on the team, and even when he’s not, he’s the most important.  On Tuesday night, Al Jefferson had a rough night on offense but we rolled to a 30 point win behind Millsap.  Last night, Millsap wasn’t hitting his jumper and nothing Big Al could do could get us going.  Granted, there were a ton of other factors, but Paul Millsap is the personification of our team and I would simply never be disappointed if he was taking the last shot.  He never loses his composure.

2.  Gordon Hayward.  It goes without saying that this is ‘good’ Gordon Hayward.  I was thinking about categorizing and putting ‘bad’ Gordon Hayward later on the list except that I realized that it was totally redundant because ‘bad’ Gordon Hayward is bad because he would never take the last shot.  Anyway, this guy always seems so calm at the end of games and really makes some big plays.  There have been a couple of miscues- the pass to Al at the end of the Lakers game comes to mind- but he’s been the biggest late-game playmaker the Jazz have had so far.  He was the one with the late-game steal against Golden State that put the Jazz ahead for good and he was also the one running the floor for the easy fast break bucket at the end of the game last night.  His shot has been off so far this season, but if the game was on the line, it would be easy for me to believe.

3.  Josh Howard.  If this guy could just learn how to dribble I’d consider putting him at number one.  In all my life, I’ve never seen someone look so laid-back while playing basketball in the NBA, which especially seems to work out for him in crunch time.  He just looks like he’s jogging around, dribbling lazily, loosely aware of his environment, and then he makes the perfect play at the perfect time.  He kept the Jazz in the Lakers game with his totally unforeseen deluge of shooting and I really don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t happen again.

4.  Jeremy Evans.  This was easy.  If Jeremy Evans is taking the last shot in a game, it’s because it is a dunk after the opposing team forgot that he was playing.  He really never gets the ball otherwise, so this is an easy choice.  If Jeremy Evans takes the last shot in a close game, it’s a win.

CONFIDENCE LEVEL: I think we’ve got a chance…

5.  Earl Watson.

6.  Raja Bell.  Make no mistake; like everyone else literate enough to read statistics, I thoroughly understand that Raja Bell is a bad NBA player.  At the same time, he seems to keep doing things right exactly when everyone has written him off.  I definitely think that carries over to clutch situations- can you imagine how the air would deflate out of the ESA if Raja pulls up for a 3 in the last minute of the Dallas game?  It would be the perfect moment for him to strangely win the game, meaning that he’ll keep starting for the rest of the season despite having the one of the lowest player efficiency ratings in modern history.

7.  Jamaal Tinsley.  If we learned anything from the Sundiata Gaines Experience, it’s that when you’re third-string point guard takes a three at the buzzer, it WILL go in.

CONFIDENCE LEVEL: Well… um… Maybe they’re feeling it?

8.  Al Jefferson The best recent development in Al’s career is that he has started deferring to other players and spreading the ball around.  Even passing out of double teams! As many wins as this turn of events will inevitably add to the season, it also has had a distinct negative effect on his late-game tendencies.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noticed him stop calling for the ball at the end of games and getting off the block to clear up the lane for other players.  If he takes the last shot, he’d be a little tentative about it- like against Los Angeles- and I’m not very excited about that.

9.  C.J. Miles.  Who knows what would happen if C.J. Miles took the last shot.  He’s just crazy enough to make it, but it would still give me an especially severe heart attack, so he’s down to number nine.

10. Alec Burks.  He has the best chance of rising significantly even within this season, but for now he’s down here.  Even though he’s awesome, he is still a little bit out of control and has been taking some bad shots against tight defense.  Last night was a huge step in the right direction, and I think that he’s putting it together quickly, but for now he’s down here because I think he would throw it up from anywhere if he got nervous.

11. Derrick Favors.  Again, this is on the way up, but Favors doesn’t have a go-to move that I would be confident in.  If he’s posting someone up with the game on the line, what is he going to do?  I have no idea.  I just hope that he’s feeling it.

CONFIDENCE LEVEL: NOOOOO!!!!!!!

12. Devin Harris.  I had him this low even before the Dallas game last night, and before the trade rumors exploded thanks to Marc Stein’s tweet, leading to Devin Harris trending nationwide.  Here’s my reason: against the Lakers last week, the Jazz started over time with a strong run and had tons of momentum along with the full support of the crowd.  It seemed like victory was inevitable and all of our shots were going in.  Then, after Pau Gasol makes a three from the corner to pull LA within one, Devin Harris takes it upon himself to answer.  Even though we had been on a roll, as soon as he cocked his legs back and let the ball rip, I thought, “There is no way on earth that basketball is going through the hoop right now.”  And I was right.  We lost that game and then he put up 5 points per game on 31 percent shooting in all of the games since and now he’s publicly on the trading block.  If Devin Harris takes another late-game shot any time soon, you know that every Jazz fan on the planet will be immediately thrust into despair.

13. Enes Kanter. Kanter just has to be last.  While it looks like he’s going to be a solid pickup and he’s filling his role very well and efficiently, his scoring is not yet up to speed. Everybody knows that at the end of the game, the refs let a lot more physicality slide.  We also know that Kanter’s biggest problem is his consistent failure to go up strong.  The two forces collide and we’re talking about a very low chance of success.

(Dis)Respect the Jazz

If you’re looking for a statistically based piece proving through advanced metrics that the Jazz are legitimate, then look elsewhere. Actually, look here or here. However, if you want thorough analysis explaining why no one in the basketball media is willing to give the Jazz any credit for the 9-4 record, you’ve come to the right place. Maybe you already know this, and you just want to read someone rip on the patronizing analysts who withhold their approval of our team until we beat someone legit (Denver AT Denver anyone?). If this is true, again, you’ve come to the right place.

The Jazz are 9-4, and everyone who cares about the NBA one month into the season (admittedly a small group) is utterly baffled. Though perhaps to the majority of the NBA analysts, the Jazz’s success has been confusing, the nature of those analysts’ confusion is not very complex. It breaks down to three major factors:

1) The Jazz have no bona fide stars. Sure, Paul Millsap deserves to be in the all-star game, and Al Jefferson might be the most dangerous low-post scoring threat in the conference, but those guys aren’t stars. At least not to the mainstream media, who comprise the group of people who make the final decisions on subjective and arbitrary matters like “stardom”. Of course these are the same people who have rewarded Kobe Bryant only one MVP trophy, so they can’t be trusted.

Teams without true superstars are always disrespected by the media. This is why Memphis’s playoff run last year was so shocking to so many. Everybody had totally overlooked the team for a variety of reasons: Rudy Gay was injured, Zach Randolph had been written off after his tumultuous tenure with the Jail Blazers, Tony Allen had character problems, and Marc Gasol was just Pau’s beefier, less-skilled little brother. ZERO star power. For a league whose popularity and revenue are based almost solely around marketable stars, the most common fallacy in basketball analysis is connecting that star power to actual basketball production. This is why last year Jeff Van Gundy predicted the Miami Heat would win 72 games and the Finals. This is why he was wrong. This is also why the Knicks have been virtually unwatchable this season.

2) No one cares about chemistry and team defense. There’s nothing sexy about a team with a different hero every single night, and as multiple Jazz writers have mentioned, people have pigeonholed Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap as offensively gifted players without any defensive prowess. Of course, as any devoted Jazz fan has probably noticed, that’s what makes this team great. One night, Big Al puts up 25 points and leads us to victory, and the next night, Gordon Hayward and Paul Millsap combine for 45 points, 16 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 blocks and 2 steals. The Jazz win games, but not because our aging shooting guard is jacking up 30 shots a game and average 40 points (I’m looking at you Kobe). For Jazz fans, this is immensely entertaining. Even as C.J. is throwing up bricks one night, he’s coming back for 19 points on 54% shooting the next night. In fact, the only consistent producer for the team has been Millsap. Everyone else has had at least three atrocious games this season. The mainstream media can’t sell this to non-Jazz fans. People like superstars. People like to see one player gunning for a win all on his own. The proverbial “team on his back” guy–that’s what people like. The Jazz don’t win like that. The Jazz win like, imagine this, a team.

3) We’re still the Utah Jazz. Even when we were running all over the Western Conference in the D-Will and Boozer days, no one cared. No one cared that we were virtually unbeatable at home. No one cared that we were a legitimate title threat. The Utah Jazz were and are still located in Utah.

Fortunately, none of those three reasons are legitimate. Sure the Jazz are getting disrespected, but not because the team is deeply or irrevocably flawed. This is only good for us. We get to root for the team that, despite being geniunely solid and well-balanced, everyone else overlooks. No one circles the Utah Jazz on the schedule (except for maybe the Nets, who stink). The Jazz will continue to be underestimated by the rest of the league and that can only be a good thing. Every single game, the Miami Heat get their opponent’s best effort. The Jazz get the luxury of playing teams at their worst, and it will pay dividends. This Jazz team is at least one of the eight best teams in the Western Conference, and if nobody knows that until the regular season is over, all the better.

Where the Box Score Fails

(Ravell Call, Deseret News)

It’s weird. How it works. How some games mean more than others. How while you’re watching a game, it begins to take on added significance, like it’s worth more than one win, or it will hurt more than one loss would hurt. Sure, the season is 82 games long (66 this year), but that number, 82, makes it sound like they’re all equal. Like a season is comprised of 82 games, 48 minutes each, and the record is nothing but a compilation of how many of those 66 games ended when your favorite team had more points. All numbers. The games, the minutes, then the seconds, and finally the points. The points on the scoreboard that decide whether your team gets one more in the win column, or one more in the other. They’re all equal. Every game is just a game. Right?

Here’s the great secret: they’re not equal. Some games do mean more than others. Sometimes 6-4 and 7-3 are more than one game apart. This one felt like if the Jazz had won, if Gordon had taken the shot instead of dishing it to Big Al, then somehow, the Jazz would be more than 7-3. The Jazz would be legitimate. Respected. Someone, some talking head on Sportscenter or some writer on ESPN, would acknowledge that this team was for real. Of course I still believe that this Jazz team can accomplish great things. Make the playoffs. Shock the NBA world. But I really, really, wanted some non-Jazz fan to recognize this, and after Millsap’s steal and dunk in the first play of overtime, I finally allowed myself to hope for it. Then we were up four points, and I was almost expecting it. Yes, I thought, I’m going to get on Twitter, as soon as this game is over, and I’m going to find someone dishing out some serious pro-Jazz love. I thought I was going to read some tweets praising Josh Howard’s clutch gene, Paul Millsap’s heart of a lion, and Raja Bell’s fourth quarter defense on Kobe. I thought I was going to read a tweet from Ric Bucher or JA Adande that said something like “Jazz find a way to beat Lakers despite 38 from Kobe.” Then Pau hit the three, Bynum stuffed Jefferson and Kobe’s 38 was suddenly 40, and it had all slipped away. The game that over the course of 53 minutes of basketball had come to mean so much more than 53 minutes of basketball had ended. With a loss. A loss that felt like 10 losses. A loss that hurt. A loss that meant more than just one game.

I can see someone reading the newspaper, or checking the box score this morning, and with some disappointment seeing that the Jazz lost. Maybe they’ll brush it off because it’s the Lakers or because it’s a young team, and maybe they’ll think to themselves, hey, at least we’re still 6-4. They’ll be right of course. We are still 6-4. But for me and for every Jazz fan that watched that game, we’ll know better. We’ll know better because just like the win against Miami last year, this one felt like it was worth something more. 6-4 is not just 6-4.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Al Jefferson

I’m not going to create any personal revisionist history here:  I was a hater.  I heard every one of the countless “Al Jefferson is a black hole and nothing ever comes out” arguments and nodded in agreement.  I watched him give up big numbers night after night and I really wondered if it was worth it.  When the Jazz drafted Enes Kanter in June, I thought it was writing on the wall that the Al Jefferson experiment had failed.  While I always liked the guy in interviews, I could never fight the feeling that he just didn’t get it.  He didn’t understand what little things he had to do to make his teammates better and get the team more wins.  In my view, all he did was give up easy buckets and take tons of shots.

Naturally, when the season started in L.A., all of my worst fears were realized as he took it upon himself to make a run at the worst-shooting night in franchise history.  Grasping for some silver lining, I remember telling Evan after the game, “At least if he keeps playing this poorly, the Jazz will have to do something.”  Then, when we won the home opener against Philly without him, my skepticism was fueled even further as I was quite convinced that we would have blown it if Al was in to let Spencer Hawes get 10 more easy points.

I can’t really point to an exact moment across the past week or two that made me start to come out of my staunch position, but I think the whole Al Jefferson picture started to finally come together for me.  True, we were winning, he was making his shots, and (gasp!) even playing defense, but there was something more to it than that.  I finally realized that by being a part of this team, Al is finally getting a chance to learn how to win.  Sure, it’s not a coincidence that every team he’s played for has failed to  reach the postseason, but nobody ever taught him how to win games.  We all thought that it was going to come to him when he came to town with Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan at the mast, but maybe it’s now.  Maybe being a part of our rebuilding process will help him rediscover how to succeed at the game of basketball.

Not to rain on our glorious and unexpected 6-3 parade, but the Jazz are now coming out of what is probably the easiest part of their schedule.  Even if things turn sour for the Jazz, I’ve come to the conclusion that Big Al really deserves the support either way.  The poor guy just hasn’t learned to win yet, and not for lack of trying.  He was never given a good look from a good team and now he’s still trying to figure out what he has to do to get the promised land of the postseason.  The last time that he won anything was the 3A Mississippi state championship and he had to average 44 points a game to do it (which I suppose explains his current shooting habits).  Though last year was a spectacular disaster of a season, it seems fitting that Utah should be the place where Big Al finally figures out how to play for the win.  Even though there will undoubtedly be some more highs and lows before he gets there, I reluctantly concede that he deserves a little patience.