Oklahoma City • Frustration, confusion, borderline dissension. Visible unease and obvious turmoil.
This is not Jerry Sloan's Jazz.
As Utah's once-promising season continues to fray and fall apart, first-year coach Tyrone Corbin has been left to pick up the broken pieces while also building for the future. The conflicting dual effort has caused an internal divide that continues to widen. Corbin faces an increasingly tough situation 17 games into a tenure that has seen him start just 5-12, while the Jazz's drive to make the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season is veering ever closer to the ditch.
Again lacking energy, effort and commitment to a system once run by Sloan that Corbin has gradually tweaked, Utah was bashed 103-85 by Memphis on Monday night during a game that was crucial to the Jazz's postseason aspirations. It marked the team's sixth blowout under Corbin who received a two-year contract with a third-year team option March 2 and the fourth time in just two weeks the squad has been beat down by at least 18 points. Moreover, Utah (36-35) has collected only one victory against an opponent with a winning record since Sloan resigned Feb. 10, while nearly falling to Sacramento and Toronto teams that have combined for only 37 victories.
Struggling, bottom-of-the-pile franchises such as the Kings and Raptors have become used to in-season chaos. Not the Jazz, who have long been associated with consistency and avoidance of change at all costs. But as Utah has fallen from 27-13 to just one game above .500, several key Jazz players have pointed toward the organization's unexpected, uneven transition from the Sloan-Deron Williams era to a stumbling, uncertain future as the primary cause of the team's plummet.
"It's been a drastic number of changes. â¦ It's been a roller coaster of a season," Jazz forward C.J. Miles said. "I've been here six years, and I've never seen this many things that have happened."
Added veteran guard Earl Watson: "I don't know if teams have dealt with the player that we lost and also the coach. People underestimate the value of those two guys."
To a man, each athlete stresses that they are not making excuses. The Jazz simply have to play harder, be more disciplined and stick together exactly what Corbin preached following back-to-back, playoff-damning road losses to Houston and the Grizzlies this week. But while Corbin continues to take the high road and proclaim a highly disappointing season as still salvageable, more than half of Utah's active roster has acknowledged that the current construction of their team does not feel right during the most crucial part of the season.
"Adversity reveals a lot of character in a team. And if you can't get through adversity, you can't really win the [Western Conference]," Watson said. "If you're fragile, you're not going to have a successful year. You're not going to do the things you set out to do."
Utah was fragile and on the edge of breaking against the Grizzlies. Ironman Paul Millsap walked off the court looking beaten and disturbed. Al Jefferson issued his first no comment of the season, cursing before walking out of the locker room without answering a single question. Ronnie Price slammed a ball to the ground; Raja Bell heatedly discussed in-game strategy with Corbin; other players bickered and grumbled; and rookie Jeremy Evans was the only Jazzman showing promise at the end of the game.
"To come in here and for us to be as flat as we were and get shoved around the court like we were, that's not a good place to be in," Bell said. "Especially going forward, when our schedule's as tough as it is. I'm really disappointed."
As teams such as Memphis, Houston and Phoenix are tightening up during the stretch run, Utah is fracturing. A team that Sloan struggled to coach and have properly execute now does so less than ever. Opponents have joked that the Jazz are predictable. Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins proved it, stating that his crew game-planned around Utah's porous transition defense. And while Corbin defended the out-of-position and undersized defensive tandem of Jefferson and Millsap, Memphis went wild with 66 points in the paint.
The Jazz's drop in the standings has been mirrored by an interior fallout. The full-on development of rookies Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Evans is on pause while Utah still has a statistical chance of making the playoffs. But while the Jazz awkwardly balance the present with the future, some players on Utah's current roster have been left to openly wonder just what the team is playing for with 11 regular-season games to go.
Meanwhile, one under contract in 2011-12 already has acknowledged that his time in Salt Lake City will likely come to an end once a season that has not lived up to expectations is over.
"We've got to get out there and play," Millsap said. "If we keep telling ourselves and not getting it done, we're going to find our way out of the playoffs."
Jazz at Thunder
P At Oklahoma City Arena
Tipoff • Wednesday, 6 p.m.
TV • FSN Utah
Radio • 1320 AM, 1600 AM, 98.7 FM
Records • Jazz 36-35, Thunder 45-24
Last meeting • Thunder, 121-105 (Feb. 5)
About the Jazz • Utah has started a three-game road trip 0-2. The Jazz are just 2-8 on the road since Jerry Sloan resigned Feb. 10. â¦ Guard Devin Harris (strained right hamstring) said Monday that he does not expect to play against the Thunder. â¦ Forward Derrick Favors (sprained left ankle) left a loss Monday to Memphis and did not return.
About the Thunder • Oklahoma City is 8-2 in its last 10 games but fell 95-93 to Toronto on Sunday. â¦ Forward Kevin Durant leads the league in average points (27.9) and is fifth in minutes (39.2). â¦ The Thunder have a near lock on fourth place in the Western Conference and will have home-court advantage during the first round of the playoffs if they maintain their position.