Al Jefferson took control.
Strengthening his already-deep voice, the Jazz center stood taller than ever Wednesday night in Utah's late-game huddle, demanding that his teammates deliver. Jefferson wanted defensive stops. Not singular, but plural. Three, four, five a series that would be strung together along a no-give line, forcing Minnesota to cave and securing the Jazz's second consecutive home win.
Jefferson got what he wanted. Utah united, muscled up and collected its victory. And by again raising his voice on a playoff-hopeful squad still learning to live without former coach Jerry Sloan and All-Star guard Deron Williams, Big Al became bigger.
"When you come to a new team, you're trying to feel your way. Not a lot of guys are going to come in there and all of a sudden take over," Jazz assistant coach Jeff Hornacek said. "We had Deron here who was the leader, so Al was kind of the second guy. I think he's gradually realized that he's the main focus on this team, and that he has to step up some of his leadership."
The rise has begun.
Jefferson was stunned after Williams was traded Feb. 23. He spent the initial period that followed avoiding a power vacuum and sticking to what he knew best: points and rebounds. That sharpened focus has produced one of the most impressive statistical runs of Jefferson's career. Double-doubles have been a given, 30-10 games have become standard, and the player who spent training camp being run into shape by Sloan has statistically ranked among the best in the NBA since the All-Star break.
"He's taken on the challenge to lead this team," Utah forward Paul Millsap said. "Being one of the guys who's been in this league for a while, he's stepping up for us and he's becoming that leadership-quality player, that type of guy that we need. He's on the court and he's doing it every night."
Some of Jefferson's most important work has occurred without the ball. The Jazz still do not have an official leader during the post-Williams era, and everyone from Millsap to Raja Bell and C.J. Miles has taken turns trying to help a shaky team find stability. Yet while Jefferson believes that a new captain's hat should be awarded to Millsap who has worn a Utah uniform almost as long as Jefferson has been in the league the lone Jazzman to appear in all 69 of his team's games this season is attempting to bring something new to a group that was long dominated by Sloan's cold stare and Williams' unyielding fury: inspiration.
"I come to find out that being positive and motivating your teammates helps, because it helps me when someone motivates me," Jefferson, 26, said. "It's just something someone had to step up and do."
It has taken him nearly seven NBA seasons to find the light. The straight-out-of-high-school standout initially tried speaking up during a depressing three-year run with the Timberwolves. Passionate about his profession and fed up with losing, Jefferson lashed out as he tried to inspire. But his stinging words backfired, turning off teammates and further blackening Minnesota's dark hole.
A conversation with then-Minnesota coach Randy Wittman showed Jefferson a new path. But he was still not ready to carry real weight. Big numbers came easy to the young man with soft hands and a softer touch. True leadership was tough.
"I couldn't still quite control it, so I used to stay quiet," said Jefferson, who acknowledged this week that he has finally returned to form after suffering a career-altering anterior-cruciate ligament injury February 2009 while playing for the Timberwolves.
"I used to lead by example," Jefferson said. "Now, it's getting a lot better as far as just communicating with my teammates and staying positive."
The increased warmth was evident Thursday prior to Jazz practice. Twelve hours after demanding defensive perfection against Minnesota, Jefferson enjoyed a brief break from Utah's ongoing battle with Memphis, Houston and Phoenix for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot. He playfully teased Jazz guard Ronnie Price, who promptly fired back. The rapid-fire joking brought a smile to the face of veteran Earl Watson, who refused to take sides and instead took the high road.
The same type of scene has often been seen this season in Utah's locker room, where Jefferson is either silent and serious or jovial and warm, messing with everyone from gullible rookies to even younger clubhouse attendants. Where Williams acted like and demanded the attention required of a king, Jefferson is just one of 14 on the court.
"He's a great individual. He likes to have fun," Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. "I think his teammates really enjoy being around him."
Corbin praised the season-long improvement of Utah's new No. 1 and the temporary face of the franchise, highlighting Jefferson's defense, recognition of double teams and willingness to pass to open shooters on the perimeter. Big Al has become more trusting, more at ease and ultimately more fulfilled. He is playing instead of thinking, reacting instead of simply acting out a secondary part.
But Corbin's strongest words were reserved for Jefferson's newest personality trait. Accused by some of putting up hollow numbers during a career that has seen him average 15.8 points and 8.8 rebounds, Jefferson has finally learned to embrace his dark side. As a result, the soft-spoken Southern gentleman at times has become downright nasty.
"He's realizing his growth has to be the importance of his attitude during the course of the game," Corbin said. "He can be the nicest guy off the floor, but when the game is on you have to be a little bit different. â¦ You have to be about your business."
Questions still remain, though. Is Jefferson's all-around attack strong enough to build the franchise around? And how does an organization not accustomed to dealing with major change move from the Sloan-Williams era into a new, championship-ready stage when its long-term core is composed of three athletes Jefferson, Millsap, rookie Derrick Favors whose talent is more similar than unique?
"Going forward, we'll see where we are on it," Corbin said.
For now, Jefferson is carrying the Jazz. Utah has 13 games left to save and extend its season, 13 games to prove that 2010-11 will not just be known as the year that Sloan left, Williams was traded and the Jazz fell apart.
"Out of all the BS we done been through, we still have a chance to fight," said Jefferson, who has not made the playoffs since 2005 during his rookie campaign with Boston.
Al Jefferson file
Position • Center/forward
Year • 7
Vitals • 6-foot-10, 280 pounds
Stats • 19 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2 blocks, 1.7 assists, 50 percent FG, 77.5 percent FT
Career • 15.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.4 blocks
Previous teams • Minnesota, Boston
Did you know • Jefferson is the only player on Utah's roster who has performed in all 69 of the Jazz's games this season.
Big numbers • Jefferson has averaged 26.2 points, 12 rebounds, 2.4 blocks, 2.3 assists and 39.4 minutes during Utah's past 10 games.
Jefferson on the playoff chase • "Out of all the BS we done been through, we still have a chance to fight."
Just 13 regular-season games remain for the Jazz (36-33), who sat in ninth place in the Western Conference heading into Saturday's NBA schedule. After going just 1-3 during a recent road trip, Utah faces another important journey that starts Sunday. Oklahoma City owns fourth place and is a lock for the postseason; Memphis sits in eighth place, one game ahead of Utah; while a surging 10th-place Houston squad is just a half-game behind the Jazz.
Date Opponent Record Rank
Sunday at Houston 36-34 10
Monday at Memphis 37-32 8
Wednesday at Oklahoma City 45-23 4
Jazz at Rockets
P At Toyota Center, Houston
Tipoff • 5 p.m.
TV • FSN Utah
Radio • 1320 AM, 1600 AM, 98.7 FM
Records • Jazz 36-33, Rockets 36-34
Last meeting • Jazz, 103-99, OT (Jan. 8)
About the Jazz • Eleven of Utah's final 13 games are against teams with winning records. â¦ The Jazz have scored at least 100 points during nine of their last 10 contests. â¦ Utah ranks second out of 30 teams in the NBA in average assists (23.8), despite trading All-Star guard Deron Williams on Feb. 23.
About the Rockets • Houston has won 10 of 13 games, picking up wins over Boston, Phoenix, Portland and New Orleans. â¦ Seven of the Rockets' final 10 contests are against teams with winning records. â¦ Forward Luis Scola (knee) did not play Friday against versus the Celtics.