Some coaches would hold back, afraid of setting unrealistic expectations and waiting to watch their team develop before making any major pronouncements.
Not Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin. The second-year leader set the bar high as soon as a disappointing 2010-11 season ended, challenged his team throughout training camp and the preseason this year, and has continued to push hard during the initial stage of 2011-12.
With Utah 12-7 entering a home contest Wednesday against the Pacific Division-leading Los Angeles Clippers, Corbin raised his expectations for the Jazz a little higher.
Utah has beaten Philadelphia, Denver and Memphis, blew out the Clippers on Jan. 17, and played Dallas and the Los Angeles Lakers close. In turn, the Jazz have become one of the early-season surprises in the NBA, entering Wednesday ranked fifth in the Western Conference.
Asked if he thinks Utah is a top-eight team in the West, Corbin didn’t hesitate.
“Oh, most definitely. Most definitely. I think we can compete with anybody,” he said. “If we play right and we play smart and we play hard, we can play with anybody. And I want our guys to understand that. We can compete with anybody as long as we do the right things on the floor.”
Corbin was just as confident about the Jazz’s ability to make the playoffs, picking up a refrain already sung by veteran point guard Earl Watson. Utah failed to make the postseason last year, marking the first time in five seasons the small-market team stopped playing ball in mid-April.
“We feel we’re qualified; we are comfortable with our team. We’re working to win as many games as we can,” Corbin said. “It’s going to be difficult in the West. But you have to be a playoff team, so we’re going to continue to work and try to win, especially at home.”
Jazz center Al Jefferson returned to the starting lineup Wednesday, after sitting out a home win Monday against Portland due to an inflamed right ankle.
Jefferson’s still not 100 percent. But he doesn’t think he can hurt his ankle any more by playing, as long as he properly rests and ices it and takes his medication.
“I got a little practice in [Tuesday] and I felt real good. I didn’t feel no [pain],” Jefferson said. “It just took a little while for it to warm up. Once it warmed up, I was moving the way I was supposed to. … It was literally getting better by the minute.”
Clippers point guard Chris Paul was also active Wednesday, after missing Utah’s 108-79 thrashing of Los Angeles in mid-January.
Jefferson’s a big admirer of Paul’s game, and he expected the return of CP3 to make a major impact.
“Chris Paul make[s] my grandmother and all her sisters better,” Jefferson said.
Steve Luhm contributed reporting.