Oh, what a difference a year makes for the Utah Jazz.
At this time last season, the dysfunctional Jazz limped into the NBA Playoffs as the eighth seed in the Western Conference, and quickly got their ticket punched for summer vacation by Kobe Bryant’s Lakers.
As it turned out, L.A. was a team on a mission and the five-game series with the Jazz was just a footnote, as the Lakers made a triumphant return as world champions.
With only a fraction of the 2009-2010 regular season left, both the Jazz and Lakers are back in familiar postseason territory, but they’ll approach the playoffs from different angles.
For the defending champs, the true test is overcoming complacency—can they muster the same drive and intensity they had from last year?
We’ve seen this movie before—you know, the part where the hunter becomes the hunted—it happened to the Celtics last season.
Everyone is now waiting see if it happens to the Lakers this year.
With 11 games remaining, Phil Jackson’s team controls its own destiny and barring a total collapse, the Lakers will be the No. 1 seed in the West.
For the upstart Jazz, every game is a must-win. They’re the fourth seed in the Western Conference standings, but they could finish as high as the second seed if everything thing breaks right for them.
Optimism abounds for the Jazz.
Winning on the road has instilled confidence, and the emergence of C.J. Miles as the team’s third scorer provides another dimension to Utah’s offense. This basketball confluence couldn’t come at better time for the Jazz, as Jerry Sloan's team has managed to play its way into a three-team dual (with Dallas and Denver) for the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference.
If the NBA’s second-hottest team since January continues its torrid pace, it could be riding into the Staples Center (April 2) sporting a seven-game winning streak.
However, if the Lakers have one thing on this Jazz team—aside from being the more talented squad—it's their ability to intimidate Utah.
Getting knocked out of the playoffs in consecutive seasons by the Lakers has a way playing with a team’s mind.
The third-youngest team in the NBA is still wondering if they can match L.A.’s bravado, let alone, defend the triangle offense.
Earlier this season, the Lakers demonstrated their superiority when they dominated the Jazz in Salt Lake City without Kobe Bryant, beating Utah 96-81 in front of a stunned crowd at EnergySolutions Arena. When pressured, the Lakers responded like champions.
Can the Jazz find this it-factor within themselves? Do they even have it?
But there’s a growing sense that Los Angeles may be vulnerable. Kobe’s career minutes have gone unchecked, and he’s now beginning to feel the effects of 13 years in the NBA. Despite averaging 27 points per game this season, nagging injuries and extended breaks suggest Kobe has peaked.
He’s no longer the best player in the league—that title belongs to LeBron James.
Couple that with the fact that Derek Fisher is on his last legs and suddenly, L.A. is looking shaky.
One expert has picked up on even more distress signals from the Lakers.
On the Jim Rome Show, TNT analyst Charles Barkley said the Lakers are facing some serious problems heading into the playoffs. With the loss of swingman Trevor Ariza, Barkley believes the Lakers lack the outside firepower that was essential to last year's title run.
He also says that Ron Artest has been a major disappointment for the team, and could be a “distraction” in the playoffs.
But an even bigger problem is the failure of center Andrew Bynum to develop into a force in the middle. The injury-prone center is battling an Achilles problem and is expected to return before the playoffs start, but he’s failed to become the low-post weapon everyone thought he could be at this stage of his career.
"Sir Charles" says a lot of things that are up for debate or maybe even over-hyped, but he does give a message of hope to teams like Denver, Dallas, and Utah.
Obviously, the Jazz and Lakers are starting to play their best basketball at just the right time. Utah has won three in-a-row and the Lakers are working on seven-game win streak. Utah has also caught Denver in the Northwest Division, and could surpass the Nuggets if they can continue to rack up wins against lottery-bound teams. Utah’s next four games are against Indiana, Washington, New York, and Golden State.
Can you say streaking to the playoffs?
Now, contrary to what most Jazz fans think, it’s not the freakish talents of Andrei Kirilenko that gave Utah new life in the West—it’s the play of All-Star point guard Deron Williams.
Kobe calls him the “little Cadillac.” And lately, he’s been running the Jazz offense on all cylinders. Williams is mastering the art of point guard, much like John Stockton did years ago.
He is now the straw that stirs Utah’s offensive tonic and his coaches recognize that. Williams was dominant in Utah's 113-87 victory at Toronto Wednesday night.
“However he goes, that’s how we go,” said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, “and I thought he played extremely well.”
Williams had 18 points, 16 assists, and eight rebounds as he schooled Raptors guard Jose Calderon. Toronto coach Jay Triano said D-Will was much better than what his numbers indicated. “His line is deceiving, 18 and 16. […] He was better than that,” Triano said.
Since the Jazz lost the season series (3-1) to the Nuggets, its likely Utah will have to finish 8-2 or 7-3 in its final 10 games if they hope to leapfrog the Nuggets. Anything less, and the Jazz could be looking at a four or five seed, or perhaps even worse.
But with some newfound swagger—Utah seems determined to finish the season on a high note.
“We’re a pretty good home team,” said Carlos Boozer. “But we’ve got to get better on the road. Hopefully we can continue to improve and carry it through to the playoffs.” Winning the first of three straight road games, Utah took some pressure off itself and improved its record to 18-17 away from home.
However, Sloan is still looking for more consistency down the stretch: “Hopefully they’ve got their heads screwed on [because] we’re in a tough race.” Nothing like old fashioned home-spun wisdom to keep everything in perspective.
And Laker fans, don't sell this Jazz team short—they could be the one team in the West that's capable beating the World Champion Lakers.