Jazz: Rookie takes charge
INDIANAPOLIS - The Jazz got a close-up look Thursday at a point guard they pursued but didn't get, and learned there is reason to be disappointed. They also got a good look at a point guard they did get - and there is reason to be tremendously optimistic.
Sarunas Jasikevicius, who turned down a Jazz contract offer over the summer, quarterbacked the Pacers to a comeback victory over Utah, 99-92 in Conseco Fieldhouse. But Deron Williams more than compensated for any lingering anguish by displaying the tantalizing skills that convinced the Jazz to draft him.
Williams scored 17 points, 13 of them in the fourth quarter, and added six assists, but more importantly, he visibly took charge of his new team at the end of a close game, directing the offense, making critical decisions, and sinking important shots.
"He's going to be a good player," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan admitted, if a little grudgingly.
Williams' work didn't produce a victory, but it wasn't a fair fight, either. The Pacers played the final quarter with five players - Jasikevicius, Stephen Jackson, Danny Granger, Austin Croshere and the newly reinstated Ron Artest - who will be in their rotation this season. Sloan provided Williams with four rookies to face that formidable lineup, three of whom aren't likely to make the team.
The result was predictable: The Pacers used their experience to earn 19 free throws in the
quarter, to the Jazz's two, and Jackson and Jasikevicius outscored Utah 22-13 by themselves in the final six minutes to earn the win.
But Williams hit three long jumpers and a drive to the basket during that span, arced a pretty pass to Whaley for a layup, and generally kept Indiana from getting comfortable until the last minute.
In other words, the Jazz's rookies lost the game - but passed Sloan's test.
"I thought they did pretty well," the coach said. "I thought it was good for them. . . . How else are you going to learn?"
Williams figured he has learned plenty, just in the first couple of preseason games. Like, protect the ball.
"I tried to make a conscious effort to cut down on my turnovers, and I did that," said the rookie, who piled up five turnovers in 16 minutes at Toronto, but only one in 23 minutes here. "The first game, that's unacceptable. So I tried to think about things I did in that game and go out and work on them."
He didn't mind that the Pacers kept their regulars in; quite the opposite. "It's only going to make you better," he said. "Those are guys we're going to see night in and night out during the regular season. I like how they put their key guys out there."
Utah didn't see all of them, not with Jermaine O'Neal, Jeff Foster and Fred Jones all injured. But they got a valuable test, and showed some positive signs. They outscored Indiana 34-25 in the third quarter, for instance, with guard Devin Brown getting to the free-throw line with some physical play, and Andrei Kirilenko playing with the fire that his coach said had been missing.
"I was beginning to wonder," Sloan said of Kirilenko's five-point, six-rebound stint after halftime. "You don't get yourself better by playing at half-speed. You've got to get yourself going so you get into a good rhythm and you don't get hurt. That's how you avoid injuries. Playing this game casually, you can really get hurt."
Kirilenko seemed hurt by the words more than anything else. "I know I'm not" playing half-speed, he said. "I'm trying to play up to full speed. . . . I feel good right now and [am] starting to get into a rhythm."
Jasikevicius, who turned down $12 million from the Jazz because he preferred Indiana's status as a title contender, is in that rhythm already. He smoothly hit six of his nine shots, nearly all from 20 feet, to effectively complement Artest's physical inside game. Artest scored 23, and Jasikevicius 17.
"This team is going to be a great, great team," Sloan said.