If you aren't duly impressed by what the Utah Jazz have been doing in the playoffs this year, then you either 1) hate basketball or 2) have no soul. Either way, I'll be by this evening to jam a wooden stake through your heart...just in case.

I've been engaged in a season-long argument with my buddies over at The Association, who seem to delight in calling this Jazz team a "fraud." Personally, I didn't see it. A fraud is something that people are tricked into thinking is one thing, but in actuality is something quite different. Yet the Jazz have always been one of the most consistent (and predictable) teams in the league: They rough you up on defense, execute a precise offense, crash the boards at both ends, and hustle for 48 minutes.

But based on their first nine playoff games, maybe I was wrong. Maybe the Jazz really are frauds. Because few people expected them to beat the Rockets at their own "grind it to a halt and ride our superstars" game, and nobody expected them to beat the Warriors in an up-tempo shootout. Yet that's exactly what happened with the Rockets, and it's what's happening now with the Warriors (although things may change when the series moves to Oakland). The Jazz have proven far more adaptable than anybody expected. And shame on all of us for not seeing it sooner.

The Jazz have long been considered a bland, one-dimensional team comprised of -- at best -- second-tier talent. But take a closer look at their roster. They have a "Stockton and Malone Lite" in Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. They have a soft-shooting center who's surprisingly effective on the boards (Mehmet Okur), an international man of mystery (Andrei Kirilenko), an eager rookie (Dee Brown), a slowing but stout-hearted veteran (Derek Fisher), and a handful of sturdy roleplayers (Matt Harpring, Paul Millsap, and Gordan Giricek). They may not be fast, athletic, or particularly flashy, but they're a group of mature, disciplined athletes who work exceptionally hard and have what experts like to call "high basketball IQs." All things being equal, there's no reason they shouldn't be able to play any style of basketball necessary to win.

But all things aren't equal, and the Jazz are often thought of as the on-court personification of their coach, Jerry Sloan, who looks (god love him) like a background extra from a zombie movie. His old-school approach is considered boring and unimaginative: it focuses on sound defense, controlled offense, and a whole lot of hustle. Even with a career coaching record of 1035-689 and a string of 50-win seasons a mile long, Sloan couldn't win a Coach of the Year award if his life depended on it. I think one of the primary reasons for this is that Sloan isn't an innovator. He never tries to reinvent the wheel. He expects his players to beat up their opponents and run the pick-and-roll as many times as it takes to outscore the other guys. End of story.

But maybe Sloan is mellowing out in his old age. The Jazz are still playing their game -- in Game 2 they crushed the Warriors on the boards 60 to 32 -- but Sloan is loosening the reins a little bit too. In Game 1, the Jazz attempted 23 three-pointers, almost double their season average of 12.9 per game. And last night he actually let Kirilenko play point guard when Williams (foul trouble), Brown (injury), and Fisher (late arrival) were unavailable. My jaw dropped the first time Andrei brought the ball up the court, but you know what? It worked out okay, and once again I was suprised when I probably shouldn't have been.

So yeah, maybe the Jazz are frauds...because they're much more than any of us thought they were. But they're also very much for real. Bring on Game 3.

Edit: I didn't mean to exclude Derek Fisher's bravery nor his late-game heroics. He's awesome. A lot of people are singing his praises as well or better than I can, so I'll just say one last thing: don't you think the Lakers wish they'd had him instead of Smush Parker this season?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...
It's a shame Jerry Sloan didn't win coach of the year this year.

Considering Sam Mitchell's piss poor job in playoffs, they really should give this award after post-season.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
i'm a laker fan, and i'll do ya one better -- we wish we'd had him instead of every point we've thrown out there since he left. i -- along with a lot of others -- was more heartbroken with his moving on than wih shaq's. it's a shame he's gone, but he'll always be held in very high regard in l.a., and this recent example of his character only solidifies that.

Blogger Christian Angelo said...
Although The Jazz got beaten up earlier, I agree with you and I expect The Jazz to win this series. Golden State would give them a hell of a fight though :D

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