For several seasons now, the Jazz have been knocking on the proverbial door, lingering just a rung below the league's perceived elite.
Despite making the Western Conference Finals two years ago and losing a hard-fought series with the Lakers last year, the Jazz entered 2008-09 with a surprising lack of fanfare.
The Hornets strong playoff push of a year ago coupled with the presumed excellence of veteran teams like Dallas and Phoenix appeared to overshadow the consistently solid Jazz. Even the young Trail Blazers were a more chic dark-horse pick.
Decimated by injuries to Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer early in the season, Utah got off to a respectable but unspectacular start, as they struggled to find their rhythm in the rugged Western Conference.
But finally at full strength and with some continuity in their lineup, the Jazz have rung up 11 straight victories, pulling them into a first-place tie in the division and positioning them well for home-court advantage in the playoffs.
And they possess almost every ingredient necessary to make a run once they get there.
Deron Williams continues to show that he is one of the elite point guards in the league. His combination of size, vision, quickness, and leadership make him a more explosive version of Chauncey Billups when healthy.
The Jazz also have the necessary muscle in the post, with Carlos Boozer being good for 20 and 10 on most nights. He is the kind of All-Star-caliber power forward that can hold his own with the Tim Duncans and Pau Gasols of the West.
What sets this team apart, however, is its depth and balance. The Jazz boast six players currently averaging at least 12 points per game, and have eight players that play at least 20 minutes per game.
While Williams and Boozer are All-Star-quality players, they are surrounded by a cast of other talented players that make Utah one of the deepest teams in the league.
Mehmet Okur is a sweet-shooting big man that can put up 30 on a good night.
Andre Kirilenko can still stuff the stat sheet and is the kind of versatile defender that every contending club needs.
C.J. Miles and Ronnie Brewer also provide productive minutes and can put up double-figures when someone is having an off-night. And don't forget about Kyle Korver, one of the league's finest three-point shooters.
But the real difference-maker for the Jazz is Paul Millsap. The burly forward filled in for the injured Boozer and was a double-double machine in his absence, almost outperforming the All-Star himself.
Now that Boozer is healthy, or was until he tweaked his ankle a few days ago, Utah is assured of getting 48 minutes of beast from the power forward position.
However, the Jazz have some flaws as well. Millsap and Boozer are both monsters on the glass, but they are a bit undersized and can be exploited by teams with length down low.
And perhaps more seriously, they lack that elite, crunch-time scorer that can make the dynamic, game-winning play. Deron Williams is evolving in that capacity, but it is hard to see him out-gunning Kobe Bryant or Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili if it gets to that point.
The absence of that "closer" may stand in the way of the Jazz getting past San Antonio or Los Angeles in the playoffs, but they are taking anyone to six or seven games.
The Jazz are a legitimate dark horse to make a run to the Finals, and any team that draws them in the playoffs will have their hands full.
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