Kragthorpe: Jazz lose, but Burke battles Lillard gamely
NBA • Jazz rookie plays ex-Weber star to near-standoff
Published: December 10, 2013 11:41AM
Updated: December 10, 2013 09:53AM
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Kurt Kragthorpe

Playing in front of members of Weber State’s Wildcat Club, Portland’s Damian Lillard used a late scoring flurry to produce statistics nearly identical to Jazz point guard Trey Burke’s numbers Monday night at EnergySolutions Arena.

You know, Lillard just might have a future in this league.

The truth is that Burke’s effort of 15 points, six rebounds and five assists to Lillard’s 18 points, five rebounds and three assists qualifies as a victory for the Jazz.

And they lost only 105-94. By coming any closer to the Western Conference’s top team, the Jazz probably would have merited an exclamation point for that last sentence.

Burke battled Lillard during the ex-Wildcat’s 5-of-14 shooting night, after appearing overwhelmed Friday in Portland. “Just tried to corral him, not give him a lot of space … just making things tougher on him, contesting his shots,” Burke said.

In Portland, the Trail Blazers shot 17 of 23 from 3-point range in a 130-98 victory. That made the Jazz’s holding Portland to a 6-of-19 rate seem like an epic defensive performance, even if they could have used the injured Derrick Favors against LaMarcus Aldridge, who scored 24 points.

So this home-and-home sequence with Portland offered some frame of reference, at least. The Jazz (4-19) went from an embarrassing performance to an acceptable showing. That’s the limit of progress around here.

It has to be said again that Jazz management overcooked this thing, being too willing to absorb too much badness in the interest of eventually getting better.

This season has evolved into a search for little bits of hope, for modest advances, for another game crossed off the schedule. If there’s encouragement in Burke’s redemption against the reigning NBA rookie of the year, along with Alec Burks’ 20 points and Enes Kanter’s 19, there’s also the reality that the Jazz never truly threatened to win this game — if that matters to anyone.

The Blazers stayed cool, giving themselves a Western Conference-best 18-4 record. “They’re feeling good about themselves,” Corbin said before the game.

And how are you feeling? Corbin laughed for several seconds in response to my question, and then he said, “I promised the guys earlier that we’re not going to quit on each other.”

That was true Monday, certainly.

But what are we really supposed to think of this team, 23 games into the season? My only concrete conclusion is any outcome makes a sizable number of fans happy. Either the Jazz win, or they improve their NBA draft-lottery odds.

As for the theory that fans would eagerly embrace and support this version of the Jazz, regardless? Uh, no. Monday’s crowd was announced as 17,555, but entire rows of lower-bowl seats were empty. Even with a potential sellout Jan. 31 when former coach Jerry Sloan’s honorary banner is unveiled and some visits from elite opponents, the team’s attendance average is sure to be lower than 18,000 for the first time in the building’s 23 seasons.

Personally, I should have taken my own preseason advice to just check back in April and see how it all turned out.

Should I compare this Jazz team to the expansion New Orleans Jazz (2-21) of 1974-75, or to the 2003-04 team (13-10) that followed the departures of Karl Malone and John Stockton? Should I evaluate coach Tyrone Corbin in regard to what Boston’s Brad Stevens (10-12) and Phoenix’s Jeff Hornacek (11-9) are doing with their rebuilds, or to the embarrassing results of New York’s Mike Woodson (5-14) and Brooklyn’s Jason Kidd (6-14)?

Injuries haven’t helped Corbin, obviously. Burke missed the first 12 games with a broken finger and Favors has been sidelined for the last two games with a sore back. I’ll say this: They’ve made themselves valuable in their absences — and Burke did so on the court Monday.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt