It could be an old-school dogfight. Devin Harris vs. Earl Watson. Two veterans attacking each other. Two respected NBA point guards dueling on the court and slicing away behind the scenes, constantly trying to gain the upper hand and catch Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin’s attention.
Instead, Harris and Watson have drowned their professional egos in a joint effort to keep Utah’s evolution moving forward. Despite the fact that Watson has sometimes outplayed Harris, who still hasn’t found a constant rhythm after spending 37 games and more than 11 months with the Jazz. Despite the speedy, fiery Watson becoming a fan-favorite known as The Bulldog at the same time Harris has often been a magnet for post-defeat criticism.
“We’re older in our careers. We’re not trying to create reputations or fight for who we are in the league and show people,” said Watson, who’s averaging 4.5 assists and 21.4 minutes to Harris’ 4.6 and 26.2. “We pretty much know who we are. We’re just trying to enhance who we are and do it together as a team.”
The bond between the 28-year-old Harris and 32-year-old Watson was reinforced during the 2011 NBA lockout. After a Nov. 7 charity game in Salt Lake City, the veteran duo went out to dinner with Jazz players including Al Jefferson, Derrick Favors and Jeremy Evans. With the 2011-12 season in limbo and Harris then Utah’s only point guard under contract, two of the Jazz’s most respected athletes made a hard pitch to Watson, who’d made a strong impression during his initial run with the team in 2010-11. Come back to us, Harris and Jefferson said. You’re one of the best backups in the NBA, and we’ll be so much better with you in the fold.
“That right there was kind of a sign we mutually respect each other at the highest level,” Watson said.
The 11-year veteran had Harris’ back Thursday. Utah fell 119-101 at Golden State, with third-team point guard Jamaal Tinsley expertly filling in and dishing out a game-high 13 assists while Harris (left hamstring) and Watson (right ankle) missed the contest due to injuries. After the Jazz’s fourth defeat in six games, Matt Harpring tweeted a question that’s existed ever since Utah started the season 1-3 and Watson provided the spark Harris did not.
“Should there be a starting point guard debate that should be talked about?” said Harpring, a Jazz television analyst and former Utah forward.
Watson was away from the team Thursday, in Los Angeles receiving a second opinion about his ankle. But he responded just minutes later.
“NO!” Watson tweeted.
With Harris under contract until 2012-13 and set to make about $17 million the next two years, the question won’t disappear until he’s able to regain the form shown during a 2009 All-Star run with New Jersey.
Harris has acknowledged his time in Utah hasn’t gone like he wanted, and he knows he’s yet to play his best ball in a Jazz uniform. But he’s also aware his pairing with Watson has made Utah stronger. The duo have alternately picked each other up, and Watson has sometimes provided cover when Harris has struggled.
At best, Harris and Watson are 48 minutes of constant acceleration, leaving opponents sucking in oxygen. At worst, their games are individually limited, exposing damaging holes in the Jazz’s attack.
“Earl’s a veteran player and he’s been around. I feel like I’m still kind of young,” Harris said. “He’s been in this system a lot longer than I have. I’m just kind of picking up things from him and trying to learn as fast as I can. There’s no reason for friction. We both want to win. We’ve both been on losing teams, so it’s more important that we win right now.”
It’s a mindset Los Angeles Clippers guard Chauncey Billups knows well. Billups swallowed his pride after being amnestied by New York earlier this season and picked up by Los Angeles, ignoring the inner belief he’s still a premier starting point guard in the league.
Billups was cool and relaxed Wednesday before the Clippers edged the Jazz. His partnership with Chris Paul has suddenly turned Los Angeles into a contender, and the duo have provided the Clippers with a valuable asset Utah still seeks: an elite NBA backcourt.
“A lot of teams can’t do it. You’ve got to have the right personality first and foremost,” Billups said. “Secondly, those talents got to mesh. It can’t be the same exact point guard. It’s got to be two different games a little bit. It’s an awesome advantage. It really is, man.”
Role Player Pts Ast Reb Min
Starter Devin Harris 9.3 4.6 1.5 26.2
Reserve Earl Watson 3.9 4.5 2.4 21.4
Reserve Jamaal Tinsley w1.3 2.1 1.1 7.9
Pts PG rank Ast/TO PG rank
Harris 9.3 27 2.46 19
Watson 3.9 39 2.25 29
Devin Harris’ 9.3 average points is his lowest total since 2005-06, while his 4.6 assists and 26.2 minutes are his lowest marks since 2006-07.
Lakers at Jazz
P At EnergySolutions Arena
Tipoff • Saturday, 7 p.m. TV • ROOT
Radio • 1320 AM, 1600 AM, 98.7 FM
Records • Lakers 13-9, Jazz 12-9
Last meeting • Lakers, 90-87, OT (Jan. 11)
About the Lakers • Los Angeles had won three of four entering a game Friday at Denver. … The Lakers ranked third out of 30 teams in rebounds (44.3), fifth in points allowed (90.6) and ninth in assists (21.9). … Kobe Bryant led the NBA in scoring (30) and topped the Lakers in assists (5.4) and steals (1.2).
About the Jazz • Point guard Devin Harris (strained left hamstring) was a late scratch Thursday during a road loss to Golden State. He’s a game-time decision against the Lakers. … Shooting guard Raja Bell (strained right adductor) and reserve point guard Earl Watson (sprained right ankle) are day-to-day. They also sat out the Warriors game.