Portland, Ore. • Four losses in five games has obscured the Jazz’s stability. A recent fall toward the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture has raised the same questions that have surrounded Utah all season.
But during a disappointing six-day stretch that saw an unproven Jazz team downed by Atlanta in quadruple overtime, be beaten up by Boston, and blown out of Staples Center by the Los Angeles Clippers, key Utah players believe the club discovered an asset that could aid the team during its final 13 games of the season.
The Jazz’s starting five has become locked in for the first time since early March. And while a primary rotation featuring Devin Harris, C.J. Miles, Gordon Hayward, Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson is only 4-4 since March 20 — when small forward Josh Howard was lost to knee surgery — Utah averaged 105 points during the stretch, improving to fifth out of 30 teams in scoring (98.8) and fourth in rebounds (43.9).
With Miles and Hayward in the first unit, the Jazz are longer, taller and more athletic. Floor spacing has improved, ball movement has been more fluid, and Hayward has rivaled Harris as Utah’s third offensive option. Since being reinserted into the Jazz’s starting lineup, Hayward has averaged 15.2 points, scoring 11 or more in seven of eight games.
“You can’t control how many minutes you play or when you play. You can only control what you do when you’re on the floor,” said Hayward, who scored 14 points and collected seven rebounds Saturday during the 105-96 loss to Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, Miles is more of a scoring threat than Raja Bell, who started 33 games before dealing with groin and knee injuries. Bell averaged 6.6 points and 5.1 field-goal attempts, with 49 percent of his shots attempted behind the 3-point line. Miles is only shooting 37.4 percent from the field. But he’s a shooting guard in a small forward’s body. Miles can slash, attack the rim and draw fouls; his defense and passing have improved; and he averages 9.1 points on 8.3 shots.
For the first time this season, the Jazz have a prototypical NBA starting lineup. Harris is finally comfortable running Utah’s offense; Miles and Hayward can take a defender off the dribble or fire away from long range; and Millsap and Jefferson form one of the premier inside duos in the game. All it took was three months and season-altering injuries to Bell and Howard.
“I hate to say it, because we played well with those guys,” Miles said.
Corbin acknowledged losing proven veterans Bell and Howard just to tighten up Utah’s rotation is a 50-50 bet, at best. The Jazz’s new starting unit won its first three games, starting with a victory against Oklahoma City. But Harris, Miles, Hayward, Millsap and Jefferson are 1-4 since March 25, and Utah’s starting point guard said Saturday the group’s out of rhythm.
Experience is highly valued in the NBA for a reason. Corbin’s fighting to win games, and he has 13 left to guide Utah into the playoffs. The Jazz’s second-year coach is hoping his 11th different starting lineup of the season clicks at just the right time.
“To lose two veteran guys in Raja and Josh who finished games for us early [is tough],” Corbin said. “Those lessons learned earlier in the year help our young guys at this point because they were able to sit and watch and learn.”
Bell left the Jazz on Tuesday to receive a third opinion on his left knee. As of Sunday evening, Utah had not provided an update about his status. Bell said March 25 he was considering microfracture surgery, but he’s also explored less invasive options.
Check The Tribune’s Jazz Notes blog at sltrib.com/Blogs/jazznotes for exclusive news, interviews, video and analysis.
Pos Name Pts Rank (on team)
PG Devin Harris 10.1 4
SG C.J. Miles 9.1 5
SF Gordon Hayward 10.8 3
PF Paul Millsap 16.2 2
C Al Jefferson 19.6 1