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Monson: As Utah Jazz pucker up, their schedule leans away from them

Published August 15, 2014 2:49 pm

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This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Somebody once said the two hardest things in the world to do are climbing a wall that's leaning toward you and kissing someone who's leaning away.

The Jazz in 2014-15 will be attempting the equivalent of both.

Their schedule was released on Wednesday, along with the rest of the NBA's, and let's put it simply: For a young team that got younger during the offseason, that sked leans every which way. And it could lead the Jazz to another lottery pick. There's a decent chance of that.

That's not breaking news, but it is a freshened reality that will hover over the Jazz and their fan base. Question is: Will it douse some of the enthusiasm so evident when the team's summer-league entry put on a public scrimmage at EnergySolutions Arena at which 10,000 people showed up?

Another question: What kind of effect will it have on the players?

That effect had best be educational, not emotional.

The Jazz start the season running through this minefield: They play host to Houston. The next night, they play at Dallas on the first of 19 back-to-backs. Then they face Phoenix here, the Clippers on the road, the Cavaliers here, the Pistons on the road, and, the next night, the Pacers at home. Next, they go out on the road at the Hawks, at the Knicks, at the Raptors, and they top that off with a home date against the Thunder. Then, they get the Warriors on the road, the Pelicans at home, the Bulls at home, the Thunder on the road and the Clippers at home.

Don't know yet how many of those games the Jazz will be favored in, but the 1-14 start from a year ago hasn't faded completely from memory. This time around should be better than that, but by how much? There are some beatable opponents in the first 16, but all road games for the Jazz, no matter the opponent, will be difficult. A year ago, they were 9-32 on the road. And teams led by established stars, a sound formula for winning on the road and a benefit the Jazz do not have, will flood through ESA early on: Dwight Howard, James Harden, LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Dirk Nowitzki, among others.

There are other stretches of steep climb for the Jazz, one of them self-inflicted. A holdover from the Jerry Sloan days, the club's preferred pre-Christmas road trip, meant to take the players away from holiday distractions at home, remains. And it could serve up a swinging Yule log to the head this time. From December 14th to the 22nd, the Jazz play at the Wizards, at the Pelicans, at the Heat, at the Magic, at the Hornets, at the Grizzlies. What makes that run so challenging is a four-games-in-five-nights gauntlet in the middle of it.

You'd think a young team might be better suited to find the energy to absorb that kind of stretch, but it's more likely the mental drain away from home will blow a hole in that boat. The Jazz face another four-games-in-five-nights scenario in February, but two of those games, at least, will be at ESA.

The Jazz struggled in back-to-back sets last season, winning just a handful of those games, but that's a burden every NBA team must carry. And the Jazz's geography seems to help them in one regard: When teams from the East come on West Coast swings, they sometimes get the Jazz at ESA on their way home, looking spent, competitively disinterested and ready to get out of Dodge with a win or a loss.

Back to that brutal liftoff — a coach once insisted he never paid much attention to the order in which he had to play tough opponents because he knew he had to play all of them, sooner or later. But with a team attempting to install new schemes, new attitudes, new share-the-ball priorities, new defensive approaches, new confidence, all under a new head coach, that early stretch presents its challenges.

Everybody gets it. The Western Conference will be brutal this season. It's the ocean in which the Jazz must swim. Still, if they can survive the early going with a modest measure of success, and build confidence despite the bumps en route, taking advantage of a smattering of easier stretches at other junctures, they should get a few more victories in the coming campaign. Just as important for them is to continue to breathe hope into a developing team and a fan base that needs it.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.