In the brightly lit locker room, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap sit and joke and get dressed in front of adjacent wooden lockers along the back wall. One sits quietly and listens to music. The other barks out jokes and directions at younger players.
The two men anchor the center of the room, the place where, if you were to think of the Utah Jazz as a single living unit, the heart would go. From here, all things are spawned. When the Jazz lose, this is where critics point and talk like no one can hear them.
And while speculation is rampant over whether one of the two veterans will be traded, or whether either will re-sign in the offseason or whether the Jazz even want them back, they are, for now, also the cornerstones of a team that on Wednesday, was in desperate need of a win.
Despite a sluggish start Wednesday, they got it.
The Jazz (25-21) beat the 15-31 New Orleans Hornets 104-99, and improved to 5-1 in games where the two big men each score 20 or more points.
Millsap led all scorers with 25 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, while Jefferson added 22 points in front of a season-low 17,490 fans at EnergySolutions Arena.
“We’re two of the leaders on this team,” Millsap said. “We’ve got to take it upon ourselves to get this team going, no matter what that is. It’s scoring, rebounding getting defensive stops, we’ve got to be the backbone of it.”
The Jazz were coming off one of the worst losses in franchise history, a 48-minute highlight reel for the Houston Rockets that left the Jazz on the wrong end of a 125-80 result.
“It feels good to get a win after the performance the other night,” coach Tyrone Corbin said. “With all the pressure of the other evening and the performance we laid out there, to come in and just continue to fight.”
The Jazz played their second straight game without Gordon Hayward (sprained shoulder) but were buoyed by strong performances from Derrick Favors (15 points, six rebounds) and Alec Burks (eight points in 16 minutes, including several playing point guard in the fourth quarter). That pair provided a glimpse of what the Jazz hope is an exciting future.
But Wednesday was about leadership, and the veterans that weren’t going to stand to let Monday’s turmoil spill over to another game.
“I don’t even remember the other night,” Jefferson joked. “Don’t know what you’re talking about. I was watching Monday Night Raw.”
And what better way to move on?
Millsap and Jefferson entered the game as the Jazz’s two leading scorers and rebounders. For a franchise that has long built itself around big men, it needs the pair to thrive to be successful.
“Me and Paul the leaders of this team,” Jefferson said. “Along with Mo [Williams], and he’s out right now. So me and Paul have to step up.”
And while Jefferson was his usual efficient self, finishing 10 of 18 from the field, Millsap caught fire in the second half. He scored 11 points in the first 5 minutes, 20 seconds of the third quarter and his 14-foot jumper with 1:51 remaining put the Jazz up 97-94.
“I don’t remember too many times when Paul have a great game and we lose,” Jefferson said. “I have great games all the time and we still might lose. But when Paul have a great game, it’s very big for us.”
The Jazz were 32 of 46 from the free throw line, including a career-high 16 attempts (11 makes) by Millsap.
After trailing 29-19 at the end of the first quarter, the Jazz outscored New Orleans 32-18 in the second period. They never trailed by more than one point in the second half.
After the win, after the center of the Jazz — well, the center and the power forward — scored 13 of their last 16 points, the players retreated to the locker room. Jefferson and Millsap sat side by side, and moments later, a semicircle of cameras and microphones formed around them.
Jazz 104, Hornets 99
O The Jazz recover from a 45-point loss Monday to beat the Hornets.
• The Jazz are 5-1 in games in which Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap both score 20 or more points.
• Point guard Greivis Vasquez records 17 points and 13 assists to lead the Hornets.