Indianapolis • Al Jefferson, Devin Harris and Raja Bell all said the same exact thing. The Jazz aren’t a good enough team to flip an on-and-off switch midway through a game. Especially not on the road. And definitely not when Utah spends the first half looking lifeless against the surging Indiana Pacers, falls behind by 21 early during the third quarter, then digs a hole so deep even the best NBA teams would struggle to climb out unscathed.
The Jazz nearly emerged Tuesday, using a fiery 35-13 run to remind coach Tyrone Corbin what makes his team special when it plays inspired Utah basketball. But by the time the Jazz’s locker room door opened after a 104-99 loss to the Pacers, the same frustrated words and tired looks were coming from key players who’ve watched Utah (13-11) drop four of five and lose its focus and direction at the worst possible time.
Jazz-Pacers box score: http://bit.ly/AEgbFM
The Jazz aren’t executing for 48 minutes. They’re not playing with passion for four quarters. And for every inspiring all-in blitz that serves as a reminder Utah’s still the same surprising team that won nine of 11 from Jan. 2-21, there are mental and physical lapses that remind players such as Jefferson, Harris and Bell much work remains to be done.
Another problem: there’s little time do it.
The Jazz play 19-5 Oklahoma City — the best team record-wise in the league — twice during the next week. Tucked in between is Utah’s lone back-to-back-to-back road trip.
The unproven Jazz entered their two-month road test saying they must stick together, stand strong and persevere. Three games and three losses in, Utah’s leaders are already looking in the mirror.
“We’ve got to wake up, man. We’ve got to start doing it,” Jefferson said. “Because we’re going to find ourselves on the outside looking in.”
The Jazz were barely competitive for the first 28 minutes against an athletic, well-balanced Pacers (17-7) team that continues to assert itself as one of the best squads in a reshuffled Eastern Conference. Indiana point guard Darren Collison was Jeremy Lin Redux, scoring a game-high 25 points on 10-of-14 shooting and continually darting his way through the perimeter, into the paint and toward the basket.
With 8 minutes, 4 seconds left in the third quarter, it was 71-50 Indiana and Utah appeared buried. The team’s body language soured. Corbin slowly paced the sideline, silently fuming with the knowledge he wasn’t getting what he wanted from his club.
“You can’t dig a hole and then … you feel like you’re about to get embarrassed, so you start playing hard,” Jazz forward C.J. Miles said.
Utah finally did, ratcheting up its defensive pressure to suddenly pick the Pacers apart, while scoring 11 fast-break points during what was nearly a game-changing third quarter.
Bell shouted out everything from “Let’s go blue” and “Yes, sir” to “We do it by committee” and “Oh my God” from the bench. Paul Millsap (game-high 18 points) found a rhythm, Gordon Hayward locked in and the Jazz suddenly looked like the Jazz, stealing an 85-84 lead with 7:35 to go.
Corbin said Utah’s spirited run and near-comeback is what his team must remember. Play the right way — fearless and intense — and the Jazz are still the squad that beat the Los Angeles Lakers, Portland, the Clippers, Denver and Philadelphia.
“That’s what you build on. If you do the things we did from three or four minutes into that third quarter for the [entire] game, we can play with anybody,” Corbin said.
But when the Jazz wait around, react instead of act, and watch players such as Collison start fires while pros like Danny Granger (12 fourth-quarter points) put games away, and Utah is average at best. A team that’s fallen from third place in the Western Conference to ninth. A squad trying to flip a switch at the same time it’s dropped to just a half-game above Minnesota for fifth and last place in the stacked Northwest Division.
“We’ve got good basketball in us. … But we get away from that. We stray. And when we do, we’re just an average team,” Bell said. “We can’t do that. We’ve got to come out ready to play, ready to play hard, and ready to play together. If we’re not ready to do those things, chances are good we’re going to get beat.”
Storylines Stop and go
R In short • The Jazz fall behind by 21 to Indiana, climb back, but can’t finish.
Key stat • Utah commits 16 turnovers while the Pacers commit only eight.
Key moment • Indiana ends the game on a 12-4 run after the Jazz pull ahead 95-92.