“The sky’s the limit for us.”
That was the declaration that throttled over the lip and flew out of Paul Millsap’s mouth after the Jazz won their fourth straight game, a thriller taken in the last second from the San Antonio Spurs at EnergySolutions Arena on Wednesday night.
Beating the team with the best record in the NBA, the same team that swept the Jazz out of the playoffs last year, can give wings even to a quiet man’s words. Heretofore, the limit placed on the Jazz this season from most corners, maybe even from within the locker room, was substantially closer to ground level.
That was then, this is now.
Since dropping three straight — at Oklahoma City, at Houston, at home to the Clippers — to dip under .500, the Jazz downed Orlando and Toronto at ESA, the Lakers in L.A., and the Spurs back here to prop themselves up to 13-10.
“We have a lot of confidence right now,” said Gordon Hayward. “It’s a matter of us finding out who we are as a team, getting more comfortable playing with each other.”
Added Tyrone Corbin: “We understand a little better how we have to play individually and collectively. We understand more the urgency of finishing off games.”
It’s not as though the Jazz so suddenly are all fat-headed and full of themselves. There’s always a qualifier somewhere in their mix, like Corbin’s afterthought: “We’re not completely there yet, but we’re getting better as a group.”
Asked about the team’s early playoff positioning prior to the latest win, Al Jefferson said: “That’s not even something to talk about right now. Sixty games left. A lot can happen in 60 games. We can get that No. 1 seed, or we can be No. 15. You never know.” After edging the Spurs, Jefferson said: “We’re in a good position right now, but we can’t be satisfied.”
Millsap also tapped down his optimism a couple of notches, to treetop level, saying: “As long as we play team basketball, we’ll be fine.”
That’s what the Jazz have been doing of late: “Moving the ball,” Derrick Favors said. “Helping on defense.”
Instead of the ball bogging down, Jazz shooters are getting and hitting open attempts — they shot 49 percent against the Spurs, 54 percent against the Lakers, 50 percent against the Raptors. “We’re doing a good job of getting a second and third pass to get a shot on the weak side,” Corbin said. And, then, at the defensive end, on-the-ball resistance has been stiffer, rotations have been quicker, results have been improved.
“We’re playing a lot better basketball,” said Mo Williams, who hit the game-winner against San Antonio. “We just want to keep it going, keep playing. Everybody likes each other. The young guys are developing right before our eyes. Confidence is growing. We’ll see where our ceiling is.”
The next couple of weeks should give more indication. Five of the Jazz’s next six games are on the road, starting at Phoenix on Friday night, then at Brooklyn, at Indiana, at Miami and at Orlando. Between facing the Suns and the Nets, the Jazz play at ESA against one of the best teams in the West: Memphis. Their two home games directly after Christmas include surprising Golden State and the Clippers.
“This is a great test for us,” Corbin said. “We have to force our will on teams to win on the road.”
It is rather stupefying that the Jazz do the Jekyll-and-Hyde thing — or is it Heckle and Jeckle? — at home (9-1) and on the road (4-9). It’s almost as though they need coach Norman Dale to get out the measuring tape and prove to all of them that the dimensions of the game are exactly the same in every arena.
Corbin said the Jazz need something even more substantial: “Complete growth at both ends of the floor. We need execution. Better screens, harder cuts, get down the floor faster, attack at the basket early. Defensively, we can get back and meet the ball, get guys off their spots more, play hard for 48 minutes. Confidence comes from getting the defensive stuff.”
At times, the Jazz have turned to vapor over stretches, yielding costly runs to opponents they otherwise have contained. That tendency has been tempered in the past four games.
“We all have jobs that we’re supposed to do on each possession and over the course of a game,” Hayward said. “That’s what everyone needs to focus on. The guys on the ball have a job to do, and the guys on the weak side have a job to do. It all starts on defense for us. The more stops we get, the more easy baskets we get transitionally. We have to play physically without fouling. You want to make sure you’re making things difficult, but you can’t have everyone fouling, putting guys on the line shooting free throws.
“If we can get everyone in that mindset, I think we’ll be pretty good. If …”
Gordon Monson hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 AM/97.5 FM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.
Utah at Phoenix
P Friday, 7 p.m.
TV • ROOT