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JAZZ: Giricek's play improves dramatically

Published March 4, 2007 12:54 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

OKLAHOMA CITY - Maybe it's the defense and maybe it's the deadline. It might be confidence or it could be conditioning. Perhaps it's lineups . . . or maybe it's love.

Pick a theory, any theory, and you can weave a plausible story line that explains how Gordan Giricek stepped into the breach and transformed himself into the antidote to the Jazz's most nagging and frustrating underachiever over the past three seasons.

Which was, of course, Gordan Giricek.

"I've always said he had tons of talent, terrific talent," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, making it clear that "talent" is not the same thing as "ability." Lots of guys can play basketball well, but not all of them help a team win, Sloan explained, and that's a distinction the coach has tried to teach the Croatian since he arrived in Salt Lake.

Whether it sunk in or not, there's no denying Giricek has played an enormous role in Utah's current hot streak - 10 wins in 12 games entering tonight's game with the Hornets (6 p.m. MST, KJZZ and ESPN). Giricek has made 53 percent of his shots over that span, has reached double figures in half of them, and Friday, set a new season high with 20 points. "I'm so happy. I'm enjoying it. It's best time ever right now," he gushed.

None of that appeared possible just six weeks ago, when Giricek was practically despondent over his role on the team. Sloan, despite being openly skeptical of the guard's devotion to the Jazz's offense, made Giricek the starter and essentially dared him to prove the coach wrong. In Sloan's mind, a desultory half-speed effort against Miami in mid-January was all the evidence he needed. Giricek was benched again, and the clearly wounded guard went through a 1-for-14 shooting slump.

He spoke about not understanding his role, of not being happy with his playing time. Reports began circulating that Giricek was headed toward the third relocation of his five-year career. When the deadline passed 10 days ago, Sloan theorizes, so did Giricek's hesitation about his future.

"He's more comfortable, it seems to me, since the trade deadline," Sloan said. "I think he was afraid he was going to get traded, but since that time, he's played with a lot of confidence and really done a good job defensively. He's gotten in better shape, too."

Giricek denies that the trade deadline has anything to do with his resurgence, which includes double-digit scoring in four of his last five games, after accomplishing the feat just nine times in the season's first 53 games.

"There's no connection," he said. "I'm getting more minutes, that's the point. Before the deadline, I was playing normal, but I was averaging 16 minutes. Three minutes in, four or five out. I couldn't get into rhythm."

If he was bothered by the rumors, Sloan said, that was a mistake. Because none of them, the coach insists, were true.

"We weren't trying to trade him, that's just all rumors. I don't think there was one team that Kevin [said] asked about trading [for] him," the coach said of Kevin O'Connor, Utah's senior vice president of basketball operations. "We're not going to give players away. I'd rather keep guys, let them see what we do, and hopefully they can adjust to that and make themselves good player for our team."

It might just have worked with Giricek, although past surges in his game have proved to be only temporary. This time, however, there are signs that the improvement might reflect a more Sloan-friendly improvement in his game.

"He can really shoot the ball, take it to the basket, stretch the defense. But where he's really impressed me lately is with his defense," said point guard Deron Williams. "I think he's really stepped it up on the defensive end, and that's why he's getting more playing time."

Giricek knows it, too. But he doesn't agree that his defense is a new development. "It's never surprised me if I play defense great," he said. "I was the best defender in Europe. I know I can help double-team. I just want to prove it."

And he wants to prove it in Utah. Enough with the rumors sending him to the Clippers, the Warriors or the Sonics, Giricek said.

"I like Utah. I want to stay here, it's great team for me," said Giricek, who has received more than 20 minutes of playing time in five straight games. "People, atmosphere, good teammates. I didn't want trade, I just wanted to play. I want to help us because we can be great team "

So what's the real reason for Giricek springing to life? Minutes? Attitude? Defense?

"I'll tell you why," teammate Matt Harpring interjects from the adjoining locker. "He's in love."

"It's true," Giricek beams, without divulging any details. "It's spring, right?"

pmiller@sltrib.com