How much have the Jazz changed during the past 14 months?
Utah started 6-3 during the 2010-11 season. The team's sixth victory came Nov. 12, 2010, via a last-minute, come-from-behind road win against Atlanta. It was part of a five-game winning streak, and in the middle of four consecutive come-from-behind road victories against Miami, Orlando, the Hawks and Charlotte.
In many ways, it was the best the Jazz's season got. And a little more than a year later, Utah center Al Jefferson is already guarding against contentment.
The Jazz are 6-3 again. They rank third in the Western Conference, trailing only Northwest Division foes Oklahoma City and Portland. But after Utah pounded Cleveland, 113-105, Tuesday night at EnergySolutions Arena, Jefferson didn't indulge in his season- and game-high 30 points and 12 rebounds. Instead, he sounded like a veteran — and a team captain.
We haven't done anything yet, Jefferson said. Remember last season? Remember how we completely fell apart?
"Last year we had a little success. But with everything that happened, it fell off," he said. "This year we're going to do everything within our power to keep that from happening again."
He added: "We don't want to be a team that's known to play well the first half of the season. We want to be that team that stays consistent; be a playoff team. And right now we are. But we've got a long way to go."
Jefferson referred to the playoffs several times Tuesday, despite the fact that 57 games remain on the Jazz's schedule, and it said everything about how different Utah is this season. Thanks to everything from the fallout during 2010-11 to a lockout-compressed schedule, every win for a rebuilding Jazz team leaves a bigger mark. Thus, 6-3 during 2011-12 means much more than 6-3 last season.
Asked if Utah's really the third best team in the West or have the Jazz simply been hot at home, Gordon Hayward said he's not worried about the answer.
"Putting a title on yourself — for us, we're a basketball team trying to compete and win games and take it one game at a time," he said. "We're good enough to win [Tuesday]. We've got to come out and play real well [Wednesday]. We got blasted the first game against L.A. It should be a challenge. It should be fun."
Speaking of the Lakers, Kobe Bryant dropped in 48 points Tuesday during a 99-83 road win against Phoenix. Los Angeles has won three consecutive games and four of five, improving to 7-4.
If the Jazz beat the Lakers, Utah will have proven itself to be initially better than most predicted. If the Jazz are playing .500 ball April 1 — following 21 of 34 games on the road during February and March — they just might be for real. But even that date follows the NBA trade deadline, which could be the most pivotal point in Utah's season.
No matter where the Jazz go from here, Paul Millsap said it's refreshing to finally have things "go our way."
"We've just got to keep doing it," Millsap said. "We've got to look at what we're doing right, continue to do that. We've got to look at things we're doing wrong and correct them. We'll all just continue to get better."
Jefferson joked that Corbin often treats the team like they've lost "six in a row."
"That's what we need," Jefferson said. "[We're] a young team. That's what we need."
He added: "I like the way everybody playing. The bench playing well. Derrick, Big Turkey, Earl is wonderful — give us a wonderful lift. And Josh Howard is going back to the Josh I knew and love in Dallas. We've just got to stay hungry."
The Jazz still don't have a team captain. They might not the rest of the season. Corbin joked Tuesday, "We have 13 captains." Well, then.
Jefferson on having the potential to make the All-Star team: It'd mean a lot, of course. That's something that I used to get my hopes up for back in my younger days. But now it's more like, if it happens, it's a blessing in disguise. But if it don't happen, I think my overall feeling is the overall team success — winning and getting this team back to the playoffs.
Playing like an All-Star but his numbers are overlooked: Yeah. But, hey, once we get back in them playoffs, I feel like everybody know. But at the end of the day, as long as my team believe in me and the GM, the ownership, they believe in me, and I believe in myself, that's all I can ask for at the end of the day.
Raja Bell was buzzing before the win. His wife delivered their third child, a boy, after shootaround, and Bell walked into Utah's locker room a little more than an hour before tipoff.
"Knock on wood," Bell said. "We didn't give him a name yet. We've got a few picked out, but we're going to spend a little time with the brother before we decide what his name is."
Devin Harris acknowledged he's still working things out, adding the Jazz have a "weird rotation" they're dealing with.
Harris on his transition: It's coming. Winning helps. So you don't feel like you have to force it; you let it come to you.
Turning point: We just stayed the course. We figured things out defensively and how we needed to play.
What's made the difference: Everybody's sticking together. We've really made a conscious effort of getting it inside. You see that: numbers off our shooting percentage have really been sky-high, especially tonight. The guys did a great job of looking for each other and the ball's moving extremely well.
Hayward hit just 1 of 5 field goals and only scored five points but dished out a career-high eight assists.
"The ball movement's been better," he said. "We're finding the open man a little bit better. It's improved, for sure. We'll see how we do [Wednesday]."
Howard ranks third on the Jazz in average scoring (10.7), despite coming off the bench, and his comfort level has clearly increased. He said he feels better now than he has at any point since signing with Utah.
Howard on key to Utah's turnaround: Guys are sticking with the program … and not worrying about themselves.
Playing with Jefferson and Millsap: I actually got to learn in Dallas playing with great bigs, as far as Dirk. I was searching for that again, as far as when I was a free agent. I seen these two guys down in the paint and I knew that was the place I wanted to be.
Millsap, Jefferson, Bell, Watson, Favors, Howard and Alec Burks hit at least half of their field-goal attempts.
Favors was his normal second-year self: 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting and five rebounds (three offensive).
Cleveland coach Byron Scott said the Jazz's post players were "just too good," while Kyrie Irving called Jefferson and Millsap a "two-headed monster."
"They are the two guys, man," Corbin said. "They get the ball in their spots, they're difficult to guard. One of the things we're getting better at is reading when the double come out, and Al did a great job tonight, especially, of throwing out some passes and keeping the guys honest."
Corbin on Howard: He's been doing a tremendous job. … He's a mismatch most nights with different guys at the 3 spot and he can play some 2 for us. He's such a treat to have because he gives us a different look.
Players buying into team offense: It really is. It's a team effort. It's a team win. … We talked about before, just make the right basketball play and we'll all go home happy.
Jefferson's development: Aw, man. I go back to his work in the summer. He really committed himself to getting in better shape. He took the whole summer to really get his body in shape; it's a huge sacrifice on his part. … I can't say nothing but how pleased I am with the fact that he decided to get better with his body first, and just came back with a tremendous attitude and ready to work.
Enjoying his job and feeling good about the team: It's getting better. You see where, if we continue to grow and continue to get better as a group of guys, where we can be pretty good.
C.J. Miles has officially been moved down in the rotation. Tuesday marked his third consecutive game playing limited minutes and he didn't enter the contest until the 6:47 mark in the second quarter. He did clock 9:59 during the third period, though.
Kyrie Irving's for real. The Cavs' bench and a couple starters aren't.
Kudos to the Jazz fan wearing a Ronnie Price jersey.
Brian T. Smith
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