By Jon Evans
It goes without saying that life in the western conference isn’t easy these days. Much like wins, the national headlines can be hard to come by. With the Rockets’ run, the Lakers stars, and the Spurs resume, its easy to overlook a team quietly making their case to be among the leagues elite.
“We don’t get the respect that we deserve and that’s okay with us,” Carlos Boozer said after his Jazz squad handed the Celtics their worst defeat of the season. “We don’t worry about other people talking about us, we know how good we are. I guarantee we’ll have something to say about who comes out of the West.”
Such a claim from the All-Star forward is bold considering that with the West as tight as it is now, Utah is just a handful of losses away from not even making the postseason.
“You lose two three games in a row, you drop four five spots,” Kyle Korver said. “I don’t look at the standings a lot just because you can get really caught up really easily. So you take it one game at a time. We’ve been doing that for the most part and we’ve been doing okay.”
“There’s a tremendous amount of competition,” Jerry Sloan said of doing battle in the western conference. “That’s the way basketball should be.”
‘The way basketball should be’ can easily be adopted as the slogan for the Jazz. Watching them go to work is a lesson in efficiency. Last Friday while dismantling the Celtics, Sloan’s disciples systematically moved without the ball, cut to the basket and were rewarded time after time. So crisp, so clean, even Heinsohn himself would begrudgingly admit his boys were destroyed in the battle of the Tommy Points.
This success is courtesy of Sloan, the architect of the system since the Regan era.
“The fact that Jerry’s been there that long is amazing,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said before the game. “I’ve always believed it’s the right way to go for franchises. It makes you a smarter team in terms of personnel moves. They know exactly what they’re looking for. They know what type of player fits their system. I think they’re onto something by doing that, they’re ahead of the curve.”
As The Wire showed, never underestimate the power of the system. While there can be individual moments of glory or redemption, season after season the institution churns along; refusing to be conquered. Such is life in the system. (It’s no doubt ironic then, that the system the Jazz run is called “the flex.”) That’s not to say that the man running the point for Utah is Bubbles, but, like Reginald, Deron Williams knows how to grind.
“He’s a terrific player.” Rivers said of Williams. “Great vision, great change of direction, great shot, great passer, tough, physical.”
Possession after possession, the Celtics doubled Williams off of the pick and roll. Unfazed, D-Will constantly found the open man and initiated the offense. Seemingly above the fray, he operated steps ahead of the defense.
“There a very good defensive team,” Sloan said after Friday’s game. “But Deron Williams is terrific at knowing what’s going on out on the floor.”
That isn’t to say Deron is just a passer. Finishing with a game high 32 points, he showed he is able to get his own. In the first half, D-Will drove baseline and hit the step back fadeaway to put his Jazz up six. In the second, he drained another fadeaway as the shot clock ticked away. Later in the half, he split another Celtics double team and drove into the awaiting Pierce and Powe in the paint. Drawing the blocking foul, Williams got the better of four ballyhooed Celtics defenders in a single possession.
As the clock reset for the final 12 minutes, the Garden jumbotron scrolled through clips ranging from the clichéd to the uninspired to get everyone pumped for the fourth quarter. Though the Celtics would cut into the lead, it was clear that one player decided to take Howard Beale’s rant to heart.
When it mattered most, D-Will was there to take over, scoring 13 of his game high 32 in the period.
“He just kept driving and driving and getting fouled and fouled,” Boozer said. “It was great to see him do that and take over the game. I told him to be aggressive and take the game over.”
Williams did just that, scoring on an assortment of drives jumpers and floaters. A frustrated Kendrick Perkins clearly had his fill, picking up a flagrant foul knocking the Utah guard to the court. Williams responded by knocking down the free throws and moments later draining a three to seal the game. The triceps tattoos don’t lie – no guts no glory.
“It’ll be black by tomorrow,” Boozer said. “Black, blue, purple, rainbow colored. It was well deserved. Other teams are going to test you. They tested him and he knocked down two big free throws for us. That was big for us. He played great even with a hell of a headache.”
“They go at him as hard as they can and start bouncing him around,” Sloan said. “He jumps right backup and stays after it that’s the most important thing.”
“I still got a headache,” Williams said after the game. “I can live with the war wound.”
After the game, the Utah locker room was riding high, reveling in their statement win. Boozer, who finished with 17 and 12, was very eager to discuss what the win meant for the Jazz.
“It was electric tonight. You had fans yelling everyone was wearing green. It was exciting basketball, a hell of a game. It was a fun game to play in. These are the games you circle on the calendar, because come playoff time you’ll be playing against the best teams.”
The next night, Boozer tied a career high with 41 points in a losing effort at New Jersey. A defeat that indicates that their road woes may not yet be behind them.
“We haven’t proved we can win on the road this season,” Williams said. “That’s the knock on us. They don’t take us seriously come playoff time if we can’t win on the road. I think we can, we’ve had some good wins against good teams but also some bad losses to bad teams.”
To stabilize the lineup, Korver was brought over from Philly, to replace the ineffective Gordan Giricek. While he’s enjoying life with his new team, one thing that clearly still gets under his skin are references to Mr. Demi Moore.
“Yeah, you get it a lot of places,” an annoyed Korver said of Kutcher. “But it gets old.”
The newest played already has an understanding of what it means to represent the Jazz.
“I feel like that’s the way Utah has always been,” Korver said. “Always been solid, always been good, but just under the radar.”
The swingman paused, then asserted:
“But teams know.”