One game removed from a season-opening disaster in Los Angeles, coach Tyrone Corbin called out the Jazz on Dec. 28 after a 17-point road blowout to Denver.
Three days later, he again kept Utah’s locker-room door closed, raising his voice and telling his shaky team it’d just been publicly embarrassed via a 15-point road blowout to San Antonio.
The 1-3 Jazz were a mess. Utah was underperforming and collapsing, losing three contests by an average of 19 points, initially branding itself as leader-less team falling further toward the NBA’s bottom ranks.
“We were all disappointed in the way we played. … We knew we were better than that,” Corbin said.
But tucked between the lifeless road blowouts was an encouraging sign of life. Utah fought off Philadelphia on Dec. 30, winning 102-99 at home to edge a 76ers squad that would soon roll off 9 of 10 victories and enter Wednesday as one of the best statistical squads in the league.
Forward Paul Millsap said that’s where the Jazz’s unexpected turnaround began.
Corbin’s postgame tirades made an impact, especially his Spurs speech, which rang out just before 2011 turned into 2012. But much of what Corbin said, Utah already knew. It was hurting itself and wasn’t playing up to its potential. It wasn’t even playing as hard as it did during practice, where players regularly gave all, buying into their coach’s preseason dictate that every position, minute and point were up for grabs.
“He jumped on us. But for me, personally, you take [the blowouts] as embarrassing. … It’s like, you can’t have this anymore,” Jazz forward Gordon Hayward said.
Utah dug in against Philadelphia, showing the type of fight that would soon push the Jazz to eight wins in nine games and turn the team into one of the NBA’s early-season surprises. To defeat the 76ers, Utah clawed back from a 13-point second-quarter deficit and held off a late Philly run, surviving without injured starting center Al Jefferson.
How crucial was the victory? Millsap didn’t describe it as a come-from-behind win against Andre Iguodala’s athletic squad or the contest Utah captured despite the absence of Big Al. Instead, it was this: “Third game of the season. Home win.”
“With Philly, we set the tone, especially for home,” Millsap said. “When teams come in here, we’re going to make it tough on them — you take care of home first. And when we do that, it gives us a lot more confidence going out on the road.”
A last-second win at Golden State followed, as did the Jazz’s first legitimate victory away from EnergySolutions Arena: a 106-96 road win Sunday at Denver, during which Utah drew first blood and never stopped attacking.
After downing the Nuggets, guard Raja Bell noticed a trait that had long been missing from the Jazz. It was part of the identity Corbin was searching for when training camp began. But it’d rarely been seen since Jerry Sloan resigned and Deron Williams was traded last February. Utah was fighting for victories — and it was throwing the initial punch.
“Ty and his staff understand that for us to be competitive, we have to have some dog in us,” Bell said. “We have to get after people and we have to make it a dirty game. … A lot of teams don’t like to play like that. So if we can embrace that and do it at a high level, then we can beat some people.”
That’s exactly what the Jazz have been doing during 2012. Utah’s only lost once in the new year, and that was a gritty 90-87 overtime defeat to the Los Angeles Lakers.
After spending the first week of the season re-enacting the fallout of 2010-11, the Jazz are delivering on the promise they entered a lockout-compressed campaign with. Utah’s young and old; naïve and experienced; wide-eyed and confident. Combined with improved roster depth and a core group of returning veterans, the Jazz are better positioned than most to exit January in a position of strength.
A home-heavy early schedule and a lack of injuries have helped, while a streamlined offense and a stricter defense have propelled the run.
But at the center of Utah’s turnaround has been toughness. A new-world team that plays selfless, old-school ball. Ego dragged down the 2010-11 Jazz. Communication, chemistry and confidence are moving Corbin’s vision forward.
“It’s getting there and the guys are buying into it,” he said. “They understand how to push each other. … They understand that if a guy [gets] on another guy or a guy says something to encourage them, then it’s all about winning and it’s all about being together and pushing each other.”
With the push, the rebuilding Jazz have suddenly become the second-best team in the Western Conference.
After starting 1-3, the Jazz have won eight of nine and jumped to second place in the Western Conference. Utah is 7-1 at home and hasn’t lost back-to-back games since Dec. 27-28.
Date Opponent Result
Jan. 2 Hornets W, 94-90
Jan. 3 Bucks W, 85-73
Jan. 6 Grizzlies W, 94-85
Jan. 7 @Warriors W, 88-87
Jan. 10 Cavaliers W, 113-105
Jan. 11 Lakers L, 90-87 (OT)
Jan. 14 Nets W, 107-94
Jan. 15 @Nuggets W, 106-96
Jan. 17 Clippers W, 108-79
Mavericks at Jazz
P At EnergySolutions Arena
Tipoff • 8:30 p.m.
TV • TNT
Radio • 1320 AM, 1600 AM, 98.7 FM
Records • Mavericks 8-6, Jazz 9-4
Last meeting • Mavericks, 94-77 (March 27, 2010)
About the Mavericks • Dallas had won five of six entering a road game Wednesday against the Los Angeles Clippers. … Guard Vince Carter returned to Dallas on Wednesday to have his sprained left foot examined. … The Mavericks entered Wednesday ranked third out of 30 teams in average points allowed (88.5), while Dirk Nowitzki topped Dallas in scoring (17.9).
About the Jazz • Utah entered Wednesday ranked in the top 15 in points (95.7), rebounds (42.9), assists (21.3) and points allowed (93.5), while the Jazz were second in blocks (6.6) and tied for third in turnovers (13.6). … Seven Jazz players are averaging at least 8.1 points. … Paul Millsap is averaging 22.4 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2 steals while shooting 62.3 percent from the field during his last five games.