The third-best team in the Western Conference?
Not Dallas. Not Denver. Not San Antonio or the Los Angeles Lakers.
After nine games, six victories and the sweet comfort of home court, it's the Jazz.
Utah shot a season-high 59.2 percent from the field Tuesday, blowing past the Cleveland Cavaliers, 113-105, at EnergySolutions Arena before a crowd of 17,859.
Al Jefferson recorded season- and game-highs in points (30) and rebounds (12), sinking 13 of 17 shots. Paul Millsap added 19 points on 9-of-10 shooting, and everyone from Josh Howard (17 points) and Derrick Favors (14) to Gordon Hayward (career-high eight assists) reveled in the magic.
When the show was over, a rebuilding Jazz team that started the season losing three of four games by an average of 19 points collected its fifth consecutive victory, six of seven, and improved to a sparkling 5-0 at home.
How good will an unproven Utah team truly be when the 2011-12 season is complete? Can the Jazz survive a brutal two-month road test in February and March? Is the squad's sharp, sudden climb false hope or the real thing? Time will tell.
But this is undeniable fact: Nine games into a lockout-shortened campaign, Utah is one of the surprise teams in the NBA. And with each contest the Jazz put away, coach Tyrone Corbin sees progress and evolution.
"I don't know if we're exceeding expectations or not," Corbin said. "We're working to get better, man, and we want the effort to be there consistently every night that we step out on the floor."
Since a Jan. 2 home win against New Orleans, it has been. Jefferson's putting up All-Star caliber numbers, while Howard's been a difference-maker off the bench. Even as key players such as Devin Harris, C.J. Miles and Raja Bell continue to search for solid ground, the Jazz are moving forward by sticking together and listening to the voice of their second-year coach.
Jefferson said six wins in nine games definitely doesn't make a season. But after Utah bottomed out in 2010-11, the veteran center feels "better than ever," and he's staring at the best view he's seen since Jerry Sloan and Deron Williams left the franchise.
"We was there this time last year and we let it go, so that's why I'm not satisfied with this," Jefferson said. "We play every game like [we're] last in the West and that's what we're going to continue to do until it's all said and done. Everybody got to keep that same attitude. Gotta stay hungry, gotta just want it."
The painted area has been the Jazz's early-season savior.
Utah scored 56 points inside the box against Cleveland (4-5), as Jefferson and Millsap pounded in baskets. A Cavs team led by Antawn Jamison's 22 points had no answer. And the Jazz were on their way: racking up another win, adding momentum, building confidence.
"Things are going our way right now," Millsap said. "We've just got to keep doing it."
R In short • The 6-3 Jazz win their fifth consecutive game and remain perfect at home.
KEY MOMENT • Up by five points midway through the fourth quarter, the Jazz went on a 9-3 run to take a 98-87 lead.
KEY STAT • Utah's Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap combined to shoot 22 of 27 from the field.
Lakers at Jazz
P At EnergySolutions Arena
Tipoff • Wednesday, 7 p.m.
TV • ROOT Sports
Radio • 1320 AM, 1600 AM, 98.7 FM
Records • Lakers 7-4, Jazz 6-3
Last meeting • Jazz, 96-71 (Dec. 27)
About the Lakers • Los Angeles beat Phoenix on Tuesday night, 99-83. The Lakers have won four of five. â¦ Kobe Bryant leads Los Angeles in average points (27.6) and assists (6.1), while Andrew Bynum is tops in rebounds (15.7). â¦ Bryant had scored at least 26 points in eight of 10 games.
About the Jazz • Despite its five-game winning streak after the win over Cleveland, the 6-3 Jazz still trailed 9-2 Oklahoma City and 7-2 Portland in the Northwest Division. â¦ C.J. Miles' minutes continued to be limited against the Cavaliers. He didn't enter the game until the 6 :47 mark of the second quarter. â¦ Raja Bell celebrated the birth of his third child, a boy, Tuesday.