30 April 2010

There's pride at ESA

I'm not too bummed the Utah Jazz lost Game 5 on Wednesday. They had a three-games-to-one lead in the series, and were playing on the Denver Nuggets' home floor. It's a tough spot, and Utah had already done their lower-seed duty and stolen a game at the Pepsi Center. With Game 6 being at ESA in Salt Lake City, the Jazz didn't need to win the 5th game.

I also figured the Nuggets would give it one last try before summer vacation. Unless the Jazz jumped all over them in the first quarter, Denver probably wouldn't be inclined to bro-hug the season goodbye. Carmelo Anthony wanted to envelop his head with a headband at least once more. Chauncey Billups wasn't ready to stop lubricating his entire body, even if the KY purchases are adding up (as they often do towards the end of the long season). JR Smith needed a few more days of freedom before orchestrating his next run-in with officers of the law. Arron Afflalo would like a little more time to work on getting his personality in offseason shape so he can further maximize the benefits of being one of the most handsome fellows in the NBA.

I knew there was too much at stake for the Nuggets to simply bow down to His Majesty (Sloan), but what the earth was that fourth quarter? Deron Williams took the first path he saw to the basket--EVERY SINGLE TIME. Well, almost. When he did let other Jazz touch the oversized-inside-out cantaloupe (a basketball is not a pumpkin), they did their best to get quick, unwise shots off (Kyle Korver, CJ Miles) or miss (Paul Millsap, even Carlos Boozer a few times).

Utah fell apart mentally and physically after hanging in the game in the 3rd quarter, despite the Nuggets best efforts. Williams was sucking air (along with sucking it up). Boozer let himself get lost. Matthews, Korver and Miles weren't taking turns screwing up. Millsap kept missing lay-ups.

Game 5 reminded me of the 3rd quarter of the 26 March loss to the Indiana Pacers, which I was listening to the on 1320 KFAN. Jazz play-by-play announcer David Locke was making a rook mistake and not announcing the time left in the game. It is an intangible that will come more natural next year. Anyway, he was all but declaring the game over, Jazz win. I honestly thought the game was in the final three or four minutes. I think he called Williams the "king of the world" once. Slowly the Pacers slimmed the lead. No worries from him, so no fear grew within me. I think I heard him start winding up his wires, Urbanspooning on his smart phone for a place to eat after the game, and Googling the lyrics to Ke$ha's "Tik Tok" for new phrases to use in his play-by-play.

(My favorites: "got up like P. Diddy" after a dunk, "Don't stop, make it pop" and "D-Will blow my speakers up" when Williams does anything good [these line would be further enhanced if preceded with the word "please"], and "Tick, tock on the clock, but the party won't stop" when the Jazzmen have a nice little run going)*.

It turned out that the game was only in the 3rd quarter. Indiana kept chopping down Utah's lead, then, Timber. By the time I arrived home, the Jazz were down by double digits, and it never got any better. The Pacers won, 122-106.

The Jazz up three games to one is similar. A lot of people were calling the series over. Even after the loss, people aren't worried. Salt Lake Tribune columnist Kurt Kragthorpe wrote the next day that "winning was basically optional" for the Jazz. Rather than worry about the Nuggets putting the Jazz in a Game 6 that is Game-7-like, like he did in today's paper, I think Kragthorpe was too busy "talking about everybody getting crunk, crunk." (Ke$ha, again)

True, the Jazz could afford to lose Game 5, but they played like a team that knew they didn't have to win. I'm sure they wanted to win, but the didn't seem ready to grind for a win. This is what irked me.

Every single playoff game is important. Trust me, I'm a Yankees fan. If Game 4 wasn't blown in 2004, then Game 5, Game 6 and Game 7 never happen. Curt Schilling never uses the clubhouse ketchup as a dramatic device. Bill Simmons never parlays that win into thinking he is the world's absolute expert on everything, and the first two chapters of his Book of Basketball probably aren't written in a way that makes me like Larry Bird a little bit less.

What if JR Smith and Carmelo Anthony are white hot grease fires of pure entertainment and can't miss tonight? Even if all Jazzmen play well, they'll probably lose by double digits.

What if Nene-less Nuggets are better suited to beat Utah? With him out, the Denver lineup gets long and lean. Although I still don't understand it, Mr. Boozer and Killsap have a hard time with tall, thin dudes. As good as everyone makes Andrew Bynum out to be, the Jazz do better against the Los Angeles Lakers when he is in the lineup, which he rarely is (I'm 50/50 that Phil Jackson makes up Bynum injuries when the Lakers play the Jazz). (Best case scenario, the Nene-less Nuggets will be a good warm-up for Booze and Kill's 2nd-round match-up with L.A.)

With Buh-Buh-Buh-Billups, Melo and Smith, Denver is always a threat to play so well that they are unbeatable. The Jazz cannot assume they will win just because of how tough it is to play at ESA. If they do, this series might end up like that Indiana game in late-March.

* = Despite his weird dedication to downplaying Big Impact's good performances, I like Lockheim. I believe he raised the standards of a set-in-their-ways SLC media. His play-by-play has improved throughout the season. It's so odd not hearing Hot Rod Hundley, but Locke should be pretty good once he finds his voice. The Lady GaGa on Boozer's block, then slam vs. the Celtics was deplorable, though.


Speaking of JR Smith, Denver Post columnist Mark Kiszla wrote this after the Nuggets Game 5 win:

Now here is one small, revealing scene that tells you that Denver might be as sweet as a Twinkie, but also full of fluff at its core.

It was halftime of Game 3 in Utah, with the Jazz on the way to a 2-1 lead in the series. J.R. Smith emerged from the visitors' locker room and began warming up his shooting arm, as players have done since the NBA's infancy.

But here's what was odd: Smith decided he would practice bouncing the ball in the basket. Not just once or twice. In a stunt indicating he might have a promising future as a team mascot dressed in a goofy, furry suit, Smith pounded the ball off the floor toward the rim at least a dozen times.

On the Utah bench, veteran coach Jerry Sloan and his Jazz assistants could barely suppress laughter as Smith made a joke of the warm-ups. This childish display did not go unnoticed by a Nuggets official, and it made him fume with anger.

So go ahead and scream your fool head off in appreciation for the thunder dunk by Smith in the fourth quarter, a slam that rattled the rim and stamped the exclamation point on Denver's victory in Game 5.

Smith represents exactly what these Nuggets are: fool's gold.

Beautiful. I think Kiszla just made JR Smith's list of things to do in the offseason.

29 April 2010

to take away some of the sting of tonight's loss

(via slwn3d correspondent Pail Millsap. Follow him on twitter at @realmsampson)

23 April 2010

Jazz must take advantage of the homecourt advantage shift

In an article about the NHL playoffs, E.J. Hradek wrote that since 1998 each Stanley Cup-winning starting goalie had a save percentage of at least 90%. "You don't build a percentage like that just by making all the routine stops," Hradek wrote. "You build it by also coming through with the spectacular save at the critical moment."

The Utah Jazz did the spectacular by stealing homecourt advantage away from the Denver Nuggets on Monday. Really, it was spectacular. First, the Jazz won in Denver, which has been a struggle for them. Second, they didn't wait until the series was out of hand to start fighting back, like they have in the last few playoff rounds.

Now, they head back home to what might seem like the routine: Win two games at home. But it isn't routine, and if Utah considers it that way, they will probably find themselves on the business end of the Nuggets pulling off "the spectacular". That is, retaking the favorable homecourt circumstance.

Winning Game 2 in Denver was an impressive feat, and it was indeed spectacular, but it gets canceled out if Denver gets all spectacular in Game 3 or 4.

The Jazz need to realize a few things. One, the ESA (I abbreviate because Energy Solutions hates it) hasn't been the Impenetrable Fortress that Larry Built like it has been the last few seasons. Two, Denver won in ESA without Carmelo Anthony and without Chauncey Billups. It was one of the two biggest WTF losses the Jazz had this season. The other was to the Bryant-less Lakers on 10 February.

Utah must protect Larry's house. (I use that phase in mockery. Under Armor has yet to become anything other than Douchebagwear. Click, clack.) Here are three factors to doing so, and thereby adding a capital 's' to the spectacular they have already done.

Replacing Okur

A lot about Okur won't be replaced. Namely, his shooting and the gumption to mock Kobe Bryant.

But without him, the Jazz can clog the middle a little bit with Fesenko and sometimes Koufos, or they can put Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap on the floor at the same time for large chunks of time. These two can be an effective tandem the more Boozer's injury heals and if Millsap starts making free throws.

By the way, I hate that NBA teams can go from Monday to Friday without playing, but it has to be a good thing for the Jazz this year on account of Mr. Boozer and other dinged Jazz having three days to take it a little easier.

CJ Miles and Kyle Korver need to continue to make huge plays on offense, and Miles needs to continue to irritate Carmelo Anthony.

Breaking the press

I was going to make what I felt was an astute observation, but I caught part of 1320 KFAN's Locked on Sports Rewind yesterday wherein David Locke made the same point, only he also had statistics to back it up. Anyway, the press by Denver on Monday was genius. A few days later, I remembered that George Karl did the same thing to John Stockton when Karl was the Seattle Supersonics coach.

There was really only one point guard who was in Stockton's league in the 1990s, Gary Payton. He and Stockton had some good head-to-head playoff and regular season matchups. What made playing Seattle even more difficult for the Jazz (along with Detlef Schrempf out-classing Bryon Russell), was an incredible 3/4-court press. It almost always killed the momentum of the Utah's offense. Stockton would have to attack the press to make two player commit to defending him, then dribble backwards to reset the offense and find someone to pass the ball to or an open spot to penetrate in order to get the ball across halfcourt. A lot of time it was fun to watch Stockton break the press down, but it was also a difficult watch because there were times where the press was impossible to break. The only team against whom Stockton didn't control the pace of play was the Supersonics.

I'm getting kind of confident that my Nuggets-in-six prediction is going to be incorrect.

17 April 2010

Don't worry, tired Jazz, the postseason will be short

I keep assuming the Utah Jazz are going to defeat the Denver Nuggets in the playoff series that starts tonight. It is dumb. First, I was assuming the Jazz would beat the Los Angeles Lakers a few weeks ago--on the road. Second, when I think about what wins a playoff matchup, the Jazz don't really have any edges over the Nuggs, besides coaching.

Elite Player in the Series

Carmelo Anthony. This isn't even close. Anthony averaged 28.2 points per game against the entire NBA this season and 33.5 against the Jazz (in two games). Worse yet, Utah has not shown any ability to control this man. I forgot, does he still wear a headband? I seem to remember him ending that fashion practice. If he has stopped, I like him 20 percent more than if he still wears it.


Edge: Nuggets

Kenyon Martin has been hurt recently, and but is back. He might be slowed a bit, but his anger is the most important thing he brings to the Denver squadron.
The Jazz are still missing Andrei Kirilenko. Their best player, Carlos Boozer, is back but hurting. Mehmet Okur has been playing hurt recently. Deron Williams is probably ailing too. His ball handling, passing and decision making have been to sketchy over the last 10 games for nothing to be wrong with him. Then again, maybe he is just really sad that Ronnie Brewer is no longer a Jazz.


Edge: Neither. Both were 6-4 over the final 10 games. The Jazz only played good in one of those games, versus Oklahoma City. Even in that game, though, the defense was non-existent.


Edge: Denver.

Denver has Chauncey Billups, the Jazz kind of have Boozer, and sometimes Williams. Wesley Matthews will probably take his place as the Utah's leader sometime next season, but he is still a rookie and I think Williams would hate a rookie telling him to sack up a bit.


Edge: Denver

Martin, Nene, Chris Anderson and Billups are tougher than Boozer, Matthews, Williams, Paul Millsap and Ronnie Price. I wish this were closer than it is. Maybe Matthews will inspire his teammates. Matthews is good Jazz.


Edge: Nuggets

The Jazz aren't as nonathletic as most think, but they don't stack up with Anthony, Anderson, Martin, JR Smith and Nene


Edge: Denver

The Jazz have Okur, Kyle Korver, Williams, Matthews and Calvin Miles. All can be good shooters, but none are automatic. For Denver, Anthony won't be stopped. Then there is JR Smith. Which brings us to....

The Wildcard

Edge: Denver

This could also be the ticking time bomb. JR Smith can light any team up. He will probably win one game by himself this series.


Edge: Utah

Jerry Sloan versus an interim coach is not even fair. Hopefully Adrian Dantley will blow a close game.

See what I mean? The Jazz are toast.

Denver also has homecourt. Utah is a better road team, but they have been terrible in Denver.

Prediction: Denver in 6

For the Jazz to win this series:

1)Someone needs to catch fire. This is unlikely. Utah's offense has been pretty bad lately.
2)Boozer's injury can't be a factor. He needs to be able to extend on his post shots.
3)The Jazz be scared in the playoffs like the have been the last two years. They have a tendency to avoid making passes that involve even the slightest risk. So, they never make a pass into the post, or a pass off penetration.
4)Matthews needs to guard Anthony, and do a good job. Kirilenko wouldn't stop Anthony, so maybe it is a good thing he is out for the series. It might force Matthews to defend Anthony. Matthews is a much better on-the-ball defender than Kirilenko.
5) Someone needs to start a fight in one of the first two games. I nominate Kyle Korver, but it will probably be Price.

I'm still assuming victory, but I know that I am just being an (J)azz.

02 April 2010

Maybe the loss to the Lakers wasn't all THAT bad?

Maybe I'm just making lemonade, but that loss to the Los Angeles Lakers right before the All-Star break might have been a good thing for the Utah Jazz in their (one-sided, little-brother) rivalry with the Lakers.

It was Wednesday, February 10, year of our Lord 2010. It had been one of those days, and I considered skipping the Jazz-Lakers game because a) the Jazz were at home, b) Kobe Bryant was out with an injury, and c) the Jazz were playing the best basketball the franchise has seen since Malone and Stockton were around. This game was going to not only be a blow-out, but one where Jazz fans proclaimed an end to the Lakers' domination of the Utah team. Nothing about this game was going to be good or worthwhile. I didn't really want to be a part of it.

The Lakers started hot, and game got out of hand early. For most of the game, the Jazz seemed like they were a nice run away from being within striking distance of the Lakers. The run never happened. In fact, the Utah never even got started, and Los Angeles outscored the Jazz in every quarter but the fourth--when the game was over. Utah had quarters of 18, 23, 16 and 24 points. The final: Lakers 96, Jazz 81.

This loss was very disheartening. The Jazz not only had their nine-game winning streak halted, they also lost a game that wasn't expected to be close. It was a terrible loss, but maybe something good will come of it. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

Since the Boozer-Okur-Williams era started, Bryant has been considered the only reason Utah has been unable to beat the Lakers. Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol are good, but not particularly terrifying fellows to face. Derek Fisher is nobody's All-Star (except Deron Williams'). Ron Artest is showing how hard it is for a star player to down-shift to a role player. Andrew Bynum has “potential”.

Bryant is the best player in the NBA, and it isn't even close. Kevin Durant isn't quite ready to supplant him. One of the drawbacks to having a great player like Bryant is his teammates' tendency to sit back and watch him make all the plays. The Lakers don't seem to have this problem.

When facing a player as great as Bryant, the other team can fall into the same trap as his own teammates. The opponents sometimes spend so much of their attention watching the defense of the player assigned to Bryant, waiting for the defender to mess up, so they can try to help out. This is a horrible way to play defense. In football, a defense sets up a bit of a wall. To make offensive progress, the offense needs to weaken the wall and go through it, or find a way around it. Defense in basketball is similar, though less literally. A defense needs to be ready for Bryant to beat his man, but when they focus their brain on it they, as a whole, become less firm, more movable.

This misguided focus comes from fear. Fear cannot play defense, and it also affects offense. “If we don't score here, the other team will score, and our deficit will get larger (or our lead, should we be so lucky, will get smaller).”

Kobe Bryant gets in the Jazz's head when the Lakers are on offense, and he stays when the Jazz are on offense. Even when he is on the bench, Utah feels the pressure to make something happen during that small window of time.

So, what might the Jazz have learned by losing without this fear? Well, hopefully that they were letting Kobe beat him a lot more than he actually was.

By giving so much attention to how Bryant was being guarded, Utah essentially made his main defender their star player. In past years, this was BruBru, who the Jazz just traded for a second round draft pick. Not a star player.

Now that they know Los Angeles can wipe the floor with them without Eagle County's favorite tourist, the rest of the Jazz players should now realize that they all have their own challenges to face. Bryant will be dealt with when he needs to be.

Mr. Boozer needs to realize that length shouldn't be so hard for power to dominate. There are many “long” NBA players who never became more than bench players because they kept getting over-powered by stronger, usually smaller players.

Williams can't let his respect for Fisher shrink the talent gap between the two players. Fisher has never been a good player. He is average. He was they one who was left open on the Shaq-Kobe Lakers teams. He was the veteran on a bad Warriors team. He was the fellow who missed every single shot he took in a Jazz uniform, save for a few in the playoff series against the Golden State. Even his leadership gets overrated. Remember the long losing streaks the Jazz had at the end of the season when he was in Utah? Larry Miller had to point out that they “sucked.” The best thing he did for the Jazz was to leave them and let them give a real shooting guard a shot.

Each Jazz needs to simplify his role. They have to stop (mentally) defending Bryant when they are on offense. On defense, they need to stop thinking that Bryant is their problem. Calvin Miles or Andrei Kirilenko need to focus on Artest. Williams only has to stop Fisher, or Dry Farmar. Mr. Boozer and Okur need only pay heed to Gasol or Odom or Bynum. Ronnie Price should be deciding which Laker player he wants to start a fight with, and nothing more. On offense, they need to work towards outscoring these players, which most of them should be able to do.

Utah now knows that perhaps they had their match-up with the Lakers all twisted. It isn't if-we-can-stop-Bryant-we-should-win, it is now we-need-to-outplay-the-other-players-first-then-work-on-Kobe. This can make a difference. The Jazz have the offensive firepower to compete with the Lakers, but none of them can outscore Bryant individually.

Or it could have been a terrible loss and the Jazz are in more trouble with the Lakers than they ever have been. Like I said, I might be making lemonade.

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