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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.

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.

(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.

The Idiosyncratic Heroism of Gordon Hayward

If the Jazz were a comic book, Gordon Hayward would be its hero. Which isn’t to say he’s playing the best basketball on the team or even that he will have the brightest career, just that of all the Jazzmen, Gordon Hayward embodies a narrative and personality most fitting a comic book hero. But not just the over-simplified,  Adam West Batman kind of hero, and not just the Christopher Nolanesque, brooding and tortured kind of hero either. Gordon Hayward is all kinds of hero. He’s flawed and talented. Insecure and confident. Timid and reckless. Glaring shortcomings mingled with occasional flashes of blinding brilliance.  Simultaneously subdued and authoritative (see: Friday night’s dunk). He’s just simple enough to root for and just complex enough to fascinate you. With Hayward, it’s all about which moments you’re watching–which abrupt snapshots of which brand of Gordon you witness. To say I understand him, even in simple, basketball terms, would be completely inaccurate. To say that I’m never baffled and frustrated by him would be dishonest. And to say that I believe with every iota in my basketball-breathing soul that he will be Great and Legendary would be hyperbole. But only slightly.

By any normal standards of judgment, Gordon Hayward is an enigma. As I have mentioned, the guy was one shot away from attaining Cult Hero Status as the Indiana boy who conquered college basketball’s malevolent tyrant, but he’s also a well-documented and self-publicized video game nerd. He has definitely cracked the Top Five Most Athletic White Americans in the NBA list, and yet he struggles in stereotypically white-boy basketball skills (pure, spot-up shooting to name one). He disappears for long stretches at a time only to return for a highlight reel drive and dish. He doggedly adheres to the rigidity of the half-court offense but thrives in the creativity of the open-court. Occasionally opponents blow by his weak perimeter defense and on a subsequent possession see their shot sent back by one of Hayward’s patented, help-side blocks. In fact, before Saturday’s game against Golden State, I was devising a post in which I examined how to better utilize his considerable talents in the team’s offense. Then Saturday night happened, and I was left both pleased and confused by Hayward’s performance.

The fact is, as hard as it is to assess Gordon’s broader effect on the game, I’m often disappointed at how reluctantly he asserts himself. But even as I puzzle over his seeming fear for the spotlight, he grabs a loose ball, races down the court, draws the foul, and nails a game-winning free throw that acts as the culmination of an awe-inspiring, box score -filling performance. It’s almost as though he glories in seizing those moments when everyone has counted him out. He waits, and waits, until you’ve started to lose faith, to regret your prediction that he’ll be an all-star, and to lower your expectations to Rasual Butler levels–then he strikes. Then he wakes up, looks you in the eye and unassumingly asks “remember me?” Suddenly, he’s blitzing the passing lanes and starting fastbreaks. He’s throwing down brash dunks and flying around the court like Detlef Schrempf on speed. Most importantly, he’s winning games for the team you’ve loved all your life. He’s showing the same kind of respect for the game that drives you to wear that Jazz T-shirt for four game-days in one week because you think it’s lucky (it is lucky). He understands how you feel about this team, and he wants to win it for you. Gradually, in that dawning of comprehension, you begin to see the possibility that Momentarily Great Gordon Hayward could be Always Great Gordon Hayward. You begin to see Gordon Hayward The Future. Gordon Hayward The Hero.

Risk-less Management: Why Won’t Corbin Start Burks?

When I first heard the news that Sloan was leaving and Tyrone Corbin was in as head coach, my initial reaction was sadness, then concern, then intrigue, until finally I reached a vague optimism: Maybe Sloan had lost his touch. Maybe the players need fresh blood. Maybe a shake-up in the status quo is exactly what this team needs to make a leap. Maybe Tyrone Corbin is a better fit for these players. Maybe this is a good thing.

Now the jury’s still out on Corbin. Sure, his expressions are usually a pleasant combination of veiled terror, unbridled rage, and dogged hopelessness, and sure he continues to dole out consistently big minutes to C.J. Miles (who shoots a glorious 34% from the field; seriously, how close are we to dubbing a well-guarded, 20-foot, fadeaway jump shot that clangs off the rim a “C.J.”?). Those things are forgivable. He’s a new coach. He’s been given an inexperienced and underachieving team. But there is at least one unforgivable about Tyrone Corbin’s recent coaching.

Jerry Sloan was old. He was stuck in his ways. When the Jazz drafted an exciting young player, I knew that player was only going to get garbage minutes for his first few seasons, and I was all right with that. Sloan had experience and he had a methodical system that would not be interrupted by unnecessary risks on unproven players. So when I reached that vague optimism in the post-Sloan retirement, it was because I thought the Jazz finally had a coach that would take those risks. I believed Hemingway when he told me that the younger you are, the more gambles you’ll make. And thank goodness, I thought, because this is a team if there’s ever been one that needs to gamble on some young players.

Alec Burks needs more minutes. This is obvious to everyone. I have searched the web, and there is no response movement to #freeAlecBurks. No one is clamoring to defend Raja Bell. There is no popular or even unpopular support for Raja’s 20 MPG. The general consensus is that the 35 year-old Bell’s only purpose on the Jazz roster is to steal Alec Burks from his minutes. Even Corbin himself has yet to offer a reasonable defense for Bell’s continued use.

So what’s the hold-up? Why does Raja continue to start and Burks continue to grow restless on the bench? Because so far, Corbin has not been the fresh, untainted, risk-taking coach the Jazz needed. What I overlooked was that Corbin is a Sloan man, and Sloan men believe in veterans. Whether he realizes it or not,  Corbin was deeply indoctrinated by Sloan, and not just in their affinity for half-court, pick-and-roll offensive sets. Corbin won’t start Burks, or even give Burks consistent minutes, because Corbin takes no risks. He doesn’t overhaul the offense even though the personnel is built to run. He doesn’t ride the second team even when they’re playing better. He doesn’t get in anyone’s face for taking bad shots (yeah, I’m talking about you Al Jefferson), and he certainly, isn’t going to play Alec Burks until he is absolutely sure Burks won’t make him look bad.

At 2-3, the Jazz are mimicking the style of their coach: low risk, low reward. The Jazz will continue to beat bad teams at home and lose on the road unless Coach Corbin starts gambling on the team’s young talent. Sure Utah won last night, and the Jazz can keep beating the New Orleanses and Philadelphias of this league with this line-up. But the playoffs are a pipe dream without some shake-up, and that requires risk. Corbin can hesitate, brood, mull it over, and eventually have enough statistical and visual evidence to justify starting Burks, and then enjoy the benefits of an athletic wing who scores; or he can start him now and at least have a chance at something special.

Roll the dice, Corbin. You’re not Jerry Sloan, and until these last five games, I was grateful for that.