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Jazz's awkward second unit inspires starters

Published November 25, 2010 8:09 pm

Unorthodox mix of players yields results in last two wins.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It is awkward at first sight. Even when it works, it definitely is strange and technically unorthodox.

But Jerry Sloan-coached Jazz teams seldom have followed the NBA crowd. And Utah is again defying conformity with its primary second rotation, which recently has employed two point guards — Earl Watson, Ronnie Price — and two centers — Francisco Elson, Kyrylo Fesenko — during crucial moments of back-to-back victories.

The small-but-large, speedy-but-slow lineup thrived Wednesday, during the Jazz's 105-87 home victory against New Orleans. Revolving around reserve small forward C.J. Miles, Utah's second unit started the second quarter with a 9-2 run. The rotation then held ground while bridging the third period with the fourth, allowing Utah to close the final quarter with a 25-15 advantage.

On paper, the grouping has more in common with playground basketball than the NBA. Watson takes the point, Price plays shooting guard, Miles mixes perimeter shooting with hard drives, Elson pops out as a power forward, and Fesenko sets up in the paint.

On the court, though, the mix-and-match combo simply works. So well, in fact, that it has become a reference point for Sloan and All-Star point guard Deron Williams as the Jazz continue to fine-tune their first unit.

"They've been instrumental in a lot of our wins," Williams said. "The first group's still sluggish to start games and that group gets out and runs. They run; they get after people defensively. It's something we need to get that first group to do."

With Price and Watson sharing the ball and Miles serving as an outside threat, Utah's tempo quickens and its shot selection widens. In addition, Price and Watson are aggressive on-the-ball defenders, combining for three steals during the Jazz's last two wins.

"That group has a lot of confidence in each other, and seem to play pretty well together," Sloan said. "Obviously, any time you put them in the game and they play like that, it gives you a pretty good lift."

Then there are Elson and Fesenko. Listed as centers, the duo combines for 14 feet and 1 inch of height; 520 pounds of weight. Elson has become increasingly valuable to Utah. His speed, athleticism and soft outside touch create mismatches; his intensity and devotion to playing the game the right way provide toughness and inspiration. Meanwhile, Fesenko has used his limited minutes well. He has pulled down four rebounds during the Jazz's last two games. But improved passing and increased attention to detail — combined with the fact that the third-year center possesses the largest body on Utah's roster — has produced a surprisingly smooth complement to Elson.

Elson said that the Jazz's awkward second unit clearly lacks the overall talent, finesse and expertise of Utah's initial rotation. Thus, the bench must rely upon intangibles while kicking up the tempo and going for the gut.

"We have to be aggressive and make the opposing team turn the ball over, and push the flow, push the tempo," Elson said. "Basically, that's our task."

That task has been accomplished during victories against the Hornets and Sacramento that have seen Utah win by a combined 29 points. Meanwhile, Miles, Watson and Elson have played their best ball of the season as the Jazz have rolled off three consecutive wins.

"It's building," Watson said. "The momentum is going in the right direction."

bsmith@sltrib.comTwitter: @tribjazz —

Lakers vs. Jazz

P At EnergySolutions Arena

Tipoff • Friday, 7 p.m.

TV • FSN Utah

Radio • 1320 AM, 1600 AM, 98.7 FM —

Lakers vs. Jazz

P At EnergySolutions Arena

Tipoff • 7 p.m.

TV • FSN Utah

Radio • 1320 AM, 1600 AM, 98.7 FM

Records • Lakers 13-2, Jazz 11-5

Last meeting • Jazz, 82-74 (Oct. 19, preseason)

About the Lakers • They hold the second-best record in the NBA, trailing only San Antonio (13-1). The Lakers have won five consecutive games after suffering back-to-back defeats to Denver and Phoenix on Nov. 11 and 14. … Los Angeles ranks 1st out of 30 teams in average points (111.5) and 3-point percentage (43.1), and second in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.73). … Center Andrew Bynum (knee) is inactive.

About the Jazz • Utah has won three consecutive games and nine of its last 11. … The Jazz rank first in the NBA in opponents' field goal percentage (42.6) and third in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.71). … Guard Deron Williams leads the league in total minutes (618), while forward Paul Millsap ranks fourth (586).