Utah Jazz: NBA’s Northwest Division more imposing than last year
Published: January 24, 2012 11:24PM
Updated: January 23, 2012 11:22PM
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Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune Paul Millsap passes the ball around Minnesota's Kevin Love and Wes Johnson as the Jazz host the Timberwolves at EnergySolutions Arena Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012 in Salt Lake City.

Life in this year’s Northwest Division is nothing like last year.

Worst to first?

It’s possible.

Last season, Oklahoma City captured the Northwest with 55 wins — the fewest of any division winner.

Minnesota finished last with a league-worst record of 17-65, while the Jazz finished so poorly that some regarded them as the worst team in the NBA heading into the 2011-12 season.

The Northwest Division, however, has been transformed.

Through Saturday night, four of its five teams were at least two games over .500. Division teams were a combined 51-29 — by far the best in the NBA.

Oklahoma City (13-3) owned the league’s second-best record while Utah and Minnesota showed during their game at EnergySolutions Arena that the teams picked as division bottom-feeders might be playoff-worthy.

“It just shows the competitive nature, man,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. “You have to stay up to par. Guys have to compete every night because you have some quality teams out there.

“Everybody is playing against tough competition every night, so you have to be ready to go. You can’t take anybody for granted because, on any night, you can get beat by anybody.”

Asked if the Northwest Division was the NBA’s best, Corbin said, “Looks like it to me. … [But] it keeps you on your P’s and Q’s and makes you understand the importance of playing consistently well.”

Said Al Jefferson: “I think it’s one of the toughest divisions. But somebody’s got to win it. We’re just going to fight to the end … and see if we can come out on top.”

Millsap’s tear

Paul Millsap capped an eye-opening week against Minnesota. He scored 26 points, including 12 in the fourth quarter, during the Jazz’s 108-98 win.

In four games, Millsap averaged 22 points, 10 rebounds and 2.5 assists.

Head-to-head, Millsap’s numbers were better than three of the most highly acclaimed power forwards in the league— the Clippers’ Blake Griffin, the Mavs’ Dirk Nowitzki and the Timberwolves’ Kevin Love.

Teammate Raja Bell thinks Millsap enjoys playing against high-profile opponents.

“Most good players do,” Bell said. “If you consider yourself one of the better power forwards, then you’re going to take every opportunity to prove that against the guys who might get the marquee.”

Bell believes Millsap deserves consideration as one of the best players at his position.

“He’s really good,” Bell said. “He’s very talented. He’s always evolving his game. He’s added pieces every time I see him again in training camp. So combine that with a motor that never stops, he’s really good.”

Support for Harris

Corbin has done his best to downplay reports the Jazz are shopping veteran point guard Devin Harris.

The latest outbreak of trade talk came after Harris went 0-for-7 from the field and scored one points in Thursday’s 94-91 loss to Dallas.

“Everybody misses shots,” Corbin said. “You look at the stats and say, ‘A guy isn’t making as many shots or scoring the way he has in the past.’ But our team is moving forward and we will continue to move forward.

“We like Devin. He’s a part of what we’re doing. He’s a member of our family and we’re going to continue to work at it. … As long as we continue to work and stay together, we have a chance to win.”

luhm@sltrib.com

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