It’s a chicken-or-egg question.
Is Paul Millsap struggling because the Jazz are playing poorly as a team, or are the Jazz struggling because Millsap isn’t dominating games the way he did earlier this season?
One thing is clear.
Millsap’s numbers have dipped recently and the Jazz can’t afford that trend to continue — not if they want to remain in the Western Conference playoff race during the final 38 games of the season.
Heading into Friday night’s game against Washington at EnergySolutions Arena, Utah has lost five of its past six.
In those defeats, Millsap averages 10.2 points and nine rebounds.
Not bad. On the other hand, Millsap made only 18 of his 50 field-goal attempts. He journeyed to the free-throw line seven times in 114 minutes.
“The thing I see is, we’re just not playing very good basketball,” Millsap said before Thursday morning’s practice. “… We’re not moving around. We’re not setting screens for each other. We’re not doing the things that made us successful early in the season.”
Millsap hasn’t missed a game. He averages 30.4 minutes, which is second among Jazz players, behind Al Jefferson (32.6).
Coach Tyrone Corbin says Millsap is “a little banged up” and will benefit as much as anyone from two straight days without a game. Starting with Washington, Corbin might also manage Millsap’s minutes a little differently — giving him shorter shifts early “to keep him fresher for the end.”
The bottom line?
Corbin needs Millsap back on track because, “… he is so important to us. When he and Al are going good and that inside-out game is working, everybody seems more effective. The shots are more open.”
Coinciding with Millsap’s drop in production has been an overall slip in the Jazz’s offense. It’s become perimeter-oriented. Opponents, most notably New Orleans, have successfully employed a zone defense against them.
The Jazz haven’t scored 100 points in seven straight games. They haven’t scored 100 points and won since Jan. 21.
“To be honest with you,” Jefferson said, “[none] of us have really played to the level that we had played. We have to pick each other up. We’ve all been struggling.”
If Raja Bell has any advice for Millsap, it’s the same he’d give anybody.
“You just have to keep playing,” Bell said. “There is no secret to it. You just have to keep plugging away until you find it again. That’s the only thing you can do.”
Like Corbin, Bell knows the Jazz need Millsap to play like a legitimate All-Star candidate, which he did during the first month of the season.
“It’s imperative,” Bell said. “We rely on Paul and Al to do a lot for us. It’s not a pressure thing. It just is what it is. He’s a big part of what we do. So we’re all encouraging, and we all understand. We’ve all been through our own stuff.”
Wizards at Jazz
P At EnergySolutions Arena
Tipoff • Friday, 7 p.m.
TV • Root
Radio • 1320 AM, 98.7 FM
Records • Jazz 14-14, Wizards 7-23
Season series • First game
Last meeting • Wizards, 100-95 (2010-11)
About the Jazz • They have lost five of their past six. … In the past four games, guard Raja Bell has averaged 11 points per game and shot 9-for-15 on 3-pointers.
About the Wizards • They own the third-worst record in the league, but have won two of their past three.