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(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Enes Kanter dunks the ball against the Dallas Mavericks at EnergySolutions Arena, Monday, April 16, 2012.
Monson: Nobody’s laughing at the Jazz anymore

NBA » After opening-night debacle at Staples Center, Utah now on cusp of playoffs.

By Gordon Monson

| Tribune Columnist

First Published Apr 19 2012 11:35 am • Last Updated Apr 20 2012 12:30 am

On that dark, desperate night in Los Angeles, the Jazz could do little right. They were — fill in the blank with your preferred adjective here — worse than bad. Much worse. They couldn’t score. They made 29 of 90 shots, hitting just 32 percent and only 26 percent in the first half. None of their starters got more than eight points. Kobe Bryant put 26 on the Jazz, and was doing that ridiculous Kobe-face thing. People seated near the floor were blatantly laughing at them.

Nobody’s laughing at the Jazz now.

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They may not be anywhere near the best team in the West, but they have come a long way since that hapless opening night on Dec. 27 at the Staples Center against the Lakers, when and where they fell, 96-71.

After that game, Tyrone Corbin said: "The guys were out there fighting hard. We just missed shots and we missed some assignments. We just struggled. But I don’t think we were feeling sorry for ourselves."

No, that was left to everyone else in the building.

"It’s a wake-up call," said Al Jefferson. "It’s not the end of the world. … We got to be better."

I was thinking about that as the Jazz, battling for a playoff spot, crushed an empty Blazers team in Portland on Wednesday night: How far the Jazz have come.

They’ve come miles and miles.

C.J. Miles said of them after the opener: "We have to find some continuity, some rhythm, where everybody knows what everybody likes to do. I don’t think that we’ve gotten to that point where everybody knows where everybody likes to be."

Nobody likes to be embarrassed, and that’s where the Jazz were.

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Well. Not anymore.

They still have those off nights, such as their recent loss to New Orleans, but anyone who saw Monday’s triple-overtime Jazz win at home over the Mavs knows how much ground they’ve covered this season.

They are not who we thought they were.

They’re better.

Not great — they never were going to be great this year — but better.

Corbin deserves credit for bringing this team along according to his vision for it. A lot of us thought this season would be all about development, and it was and should have been. I still believe Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter and Alec Burks should have played more, and that reaching the playoffs isn’t as big a deal as some want to make it. Getting beat in the first round by the Spurs or Thunder is no beautiful reward, especially at the cost of a lottery pick or two.

But the way the Jazz have come along — from a standpoint of efficiency and energy, of toughness and competitiveness — is impressive. The care-factor is high here. And that, nearly by itself, makes games worth watching and appreciating. Add in the improvement of the youngsters and the performances of the veterans, the advancement of guard play, including suddenly accurate perimeter shots — the Jazz have hit 22 of 45 3-point attempts in their last two games — and acknowledgment must be given for that kind of growth.

They are still flawed. But they are less flawed.

With games left against Orlando, Phoenix and Portland, all of them at home, the Jazz have a terrific shot at edging into the playoffs. We’ll see. But the progress they’ve made this season, from that desperate, dreary night in Los Angeles until now, is even more significant in their march toward whatever it is that comes next.

The grins and giggles at the Jazz’s expense have been put away.

In answer to Miles’ comment after that first game, the Jazz, indeed, have gotten to the point where everybody knows what everybody likes to do, everybody knows where everybody likes to be.

GORDON MONSON hosts the "Gordon Monson Show" weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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