Deron Williams should have been ecstatic.
The Jazz had just pulled off yet another hard-fought comeback victory Wednesday night against the Los Angeles Clippers, rallying from 12 points down despite being depleted by injuries and, at times, relying on 20-year-old rookie forward Gordon Hayward for offensive inspiration.
But as several half-clothed Utah players traded inside jokes and alternated laughter with proud proclamations, a stone-faced, still-in-uniform Williams spent his postgame interview quietly answering media queries. Once the fury around Williams' locker dispersed, he acknowledged what was obvious: The All-Star guard was mentally drained.
Fast forward to Thursday night. The Jazz fall to the Wesley Matthews-led Portland Trail Blazers for the second time in four days. Utah is forced to run the court without four key players Andrei Kirilenko, C.J. Miles, Mehmet Okur and Francisco Elson due to injury issues. And after falling behind once again this time by nine points midway through the first quarter Utah's rally hits a wall in the second half, as the Jazz watch the Blazers extend their advantage to 15 points during the third quarter and 19 late in the fourth.
This time, Williams is even quieter. He sits by himself in the corner of Utah's locker room, slowly dressing while alternately watching his teammates and looking downward. Williams is frustrated, disappointed and unsure. He believes in the 2010-11 Jazz and knows exactly what it feels like when the unit plays Jerry Sloan basketball. But Williams also knows other things. Utah's execution has often been sloppy this season. It is taking much longer than he expected for a significantly revamped team to jell. And the Jazz's constant flirtation with major deficits and even larger comebacks is starting to wear seriously thin.
"We're going to burn out," said a candid Williams during a postgame one-on-one interview.
Buried beneath his on-the-court critique is a deeper concern. Williams knows that Utah's 22-11 record looks impressive on paper, highlighted by the fact that the Jazz entered Friday night tied with Oklahoma City for first place in the Northwest Division. But to the All-Star guard who never stops thinking about victory and constant improvement, Utah's 66.7 winning percentage is obscuring the obvious: The Jazz had issues when training camp ended, and those issues haven't faded away. And Utah still has a long way to go before it's ready to compete with the NBA's elite once mid-April arrives.
"I've only felt we've played good in a couple stretches," Williams said.
He added: "It's not time to panic, but we've got to play better."
Utah's team leader and the face of the franchise said that a lack of offensive execution is at the core of the Jazz's struggles. It is the same issue that Sloan has hammered away at numerous times this season the same topic that a heated, frustrated Williams addressed Nov. 6 during a postgame interview after Utah was blown out by Phoenix and started the year 0-2.
"We don't know the offense. It's as simple as that," Williams said then.
To Williams, the magic number is 22 the amount of assists per game that the Jazz need to distribute to at least be running at the bottom end of his and Sloan's desired level of expertise. During two losses this week to the Blazers, Utah totaled just 36 19 on Thursday and 17 on Monday.
"It's not Jazz basketball. â¦ We're not screening, we're not running the floor, we're not jelling," Williams said Thursday.
But neither Williams, nor Al Jefferson nor Raja Bell are making excuses. Each player said Thursday night that injuries can't be blamed for Utah's inability to consistently play 48 strong minutes of basketball.
Bell pointed out that the best teams in the league primarily Boston learned long ago how to overcome the sudden loss of key players. Jefferson said that his teammates have been in the NBA long enough to know that change is constant, adding that professionals must always be ready to adapt.
Williams said that Utah has battled through injuries the past few years and come out on the winning side.
The Jazz can deal with adversity, Williams said. Eleven comebacks this season from at least a 10-point deficit prove it. But Utah has to make harder and more lasting changes if it wants to start consistently performing like superpower teams such as Miami, instead of just occasionally rallying from behind to beat them.
"It's something that's going to take a little more time than we thought," he said. "Hopefully, we can get it going sooner than later."
Grizzlies vs. Jazz
P At EnergySolutionsArena
Tipoff • 7 p.m.
TV • FSN Utah
Radio • 1320 AM, 1600 AM, 98.7 FM
Records • Grizzlies 14-18, Jazz 22-11
Last meeting • Jazz, 94-85 (Dec. 6)
About the Grizzlies • Zach Randolph ranks first on the team in average rebounds (12.6) and second in scoring (18.5). â¦ Memphis is 2-4 in its past six games. â¦ The Grizzlies are tied for 23rd out of 30 teams in average rebounds (40.3) and rank 25th in assists (19.8).
About the Jazz • Reserve center Kyrylo Fesenko has averaged 6.5 points, three rebounds and 12.5 minutes, while shooting 62.5 percent from the field during Utah's past two games. â¦ The Jazz are 1-2 during their past three contests after winning three consecutive games to end a 3-1 road trip.