despite a terrific effort in the fourth + OT against houston on saturday night, i must admit that i have overly embraced this year's jazz squad. or, rather, i've been too enthusiastic about the potential within this team and not giving enough credit to reality.
paul millsap had an unbelievable final 8 minutes against the rockets. deron played pretty well; 14 points and 15 dimes. but he also had 4 turnovers and shot 1-6 from beyond the arc. the jazz pulled down 31 boards just between AK, paul, and big al (with 53 boards overall to the rockets' 42).
but, the brilliance of the performance was overshadowed by the rusty-if-not-just-plain-bad showings the jazz have been putting together for a few weeks now. in fact, the biggest shadow cast over utah collecting the W on saturday night was the fact that it took an all-star night from millsap, in overtime, to beat a team that sits at 16-21; a team who is dead last in its division; a team that sits tied for sixth-worst organization in the entire NBA.
winning in overtime against the dregs of the NBA? that doesn't exactly reflect a bright future for the victorious jazz.
what exactly is wrong with this squad? i thought maybe a disinterested home crowd was partially to blame - and to some extent, i still do. but i will concede that it's harder for a crowd to back a team that plays .500 ball in the northwest division.
i think anybody who is interested in the jazz knows what the symptoms are at this point in the season: poor rebounding, no-showing in the first quarter/half, streaky shooting, etc. effectively, we look what we should have looked like in the pre-season. and that's where, in my opinion, the trouble begins.
with the jazz's roster getting turned inside-out and upside-down over the summer, nobody expected - even with the acquisitions of jefferson and bell - the jazz to crush all comers back in early october. when regular season play started against denver and phoenix, any shake of the magic 8 ball came up with "buckle up for a long and painful rebuilding process." but things started clicking shortly after the season began and suddenly the bleakness began to sharpen up; color emerged where once there was only gray.
and so the problem intensified. the jazz, playing against crap teams (or good teams that completely collapsed late in the game, had a chance to build their confidence while not building their skills. or at least the skills weren't being put together fast enough to keep up with the rest of the league.
don't believe me? check the standings again. the jazz may currently be tied for 4th in the west and 8th overall, that's true. but look at the numbers in the west again and remember that the northwest is the most competitive division in the NBA (at least in terms of landing a top playoff seed). and also consider that the western conference, despite the recent rise of chicago and miami, is still the superior group of teams in the NBA. case in point: the seventh-ranked team in the east, the pacers, are 14-20, while philly, in 8th, are barely above .400 ball; the 8th in the west, portland, is 20-18.
keeping those numbers in mind, look at the jazz and its records (1) at home, (2) in the NW division, and (3) in the west:
- the jazz are 13-7 (.650)at home. not too shabby, in theory, but not what jazz fans are used to. more importantly, it's not that great compared to some similar or "worse" teams (in terms of overall records) in the nba: memphis (.647), portland (.750), denver (.789), OKC (.737), atlanta (.722). get it? you effectively have to get to teams under .500 before you see worse home records, and memphis has almost the exact record at home as the jazz at 17-20 overall.
- utah is tied for first in its division with durantula and the thunder. as of today, the jazz lead OKC in road record (.667/.611, respectively) and in no other category. OKC holds the edge in home record (see above), division record (OKC @ .857, UTA @ .429), and conference record (OKC @ .609, UTA @ .542).
denver, four games back in the NW, is only worse than the jazz on the road. denver's numbers: at home (DEN @ .789, UTA .650), against NW teams (DEN @ .667, UTA @ .429), and against western conference teams (DEN @ .583, UTA @ .542).
even portland, those wes matthews stealing sons of bitches, has some edges on the jazz where it counts come playoff seeding time. home record (POR @ .750, UTA @ .650), NW record (POR @ .556, UTA @ .429) and a similar conference record (POR @ .538, UTA @ .542).
- i don't think i need to break down to percentages how the jazz fit with the rest of the west, since excluding the three better teams (spurs, dallas, lake-show), only new orleans is currently 8th or higher (6th) in the conference without being in the northwest. they're three games behind the jazz and have better home and division records.
so what does this have to do with moderation? watching paul put up 46 on miami was intoxicating. the fact that it was one of four consecutive games on the road that resulted in a win only added to feeling. having a team that makes these semi-heroic comebacks from 10+ time and again lends a fan, like myself, to believe that no hole is too deep.
but the fact is the holes are being dug against shallow teams - at least, that's been true excluding the glorious road streak of november, and that was very early in the season. while the jazz have been talking about improving and executing better as the season moves forward, those four november road wins were effectively wiped away when we lost to miami and atlanta at home in horrid fashion. adding insult to injury, portland spanked us twice in a week, while dallas and new orleans each put on a "how to crush a college-level team in the NBA" clinic against Jerry's Kids in december.
the thing to take in moderation is the jazz's moderation. sometimes they play like NBA champions - but it's only a few moments at a time and generally against mediocre squads. i'm not trying to suggest that i have lost hope in the jazz. in fact, running through these numbers has done the opposite for me. the jazz, despite having numbers of a .400 - .500 team in some regards, have shown flashes of brilliance in their inconsistency. so long as sloan is at the helm, i still have a firm belief that things will continue to get better.
but i think it might be time to have a more realistic view of what's coming in the next few weeks. i've said a few times already that the jazz had a shot at going on a few 10 game win streaks between now and late march. barring a miracle (herely of rapid development to full potential, not one to potential that doesn't exist), i'm thinking it looks more like a couple 5 - 6 game streaks would be fantastic but not inevitable.
even so, that kind of winning still leaves the jazz in the playoff hunt while the team continues to improve. hey, even if they only improve moderately (looping on a theme!), OKC doesn't stay at the top of the northwest. that will be something to celebrate in excess.