With All-Star point guard Deron Williams setting a high standard (in a low key), the Jazz has rebounded from a sluggish start to become a fearsome force in the West
The importance of the game could be measured by the nonstop heckling behind the Suns' bench last Thursday in Phoenix, where a pair of thirtysomethings in Jazz shirts with Tom Arnold voices were doing all they could to help visiting Utah end a two-game losing streak. Suns forward Amar'e Stoudemire heard sarcastic compliments about his stretching regimen as he waited to reenter the game, Steve Nash got the requisite chants of U-S-A!, and Jason Richardson was urged to accept a Facebook invitation. When none of that fazed Phoenix, which built its lead to double digits, the Utah boosters went for broke. "We need this game!" one of them shouted at lead referee Tom Washington during a fourth-quarter break. "Tom, I'm going to give up one of my wives for a win!"
Washington and Suns coach Alvin Gentry tried, and failed, to stifle their laughter. After a long while Gentry looked over his shoulder and responded, "Which one?"
In many ways the two babbling Jazz fans are the opposite of the team they love, which pulled out a thrilling 116--108 comeback win to stay in the hunt for the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. Utah is an all-business, no-nonsense outfit led by 25-year-old point guard Deron Williams, who constructively lectured teammates for failing to run plays properly against Phoenix while urging them to keep up the fight. Ultimately Williams, who scored 13 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter, took the biggest shots—including a three with 1:37 left that put the Jazz ahead for good. Afterward he was asked if he was playing the best basketball of his five-year NBA career. "No," said Williams, "not even close."
Williams has always held himself to an exacting standard. In his second season he guided Utah to the conference finals; ever since, he's been unwilling to accept anything less. In 2008, though, the Lakers eliminated the Jazz in the second round, and last year they knocked Utah out in the first. After a lethargic start this season, another early exit seemed inevitable. But a two-month stretch of 21 wins in 26 games through Sunday has elevated the Jazz toward the top of the West, where defending champion Los Angeles has settled, waiting for a challenger to emerge. "I think [the Jazz] will be Number 2 in the conference," says Clippers coach Kim Hughes. Then he gives his reasons: the renewed confidence of small forward Andrei Kirilenko; the low-post scoring of power forward Carlos Boozer and his backup, Paul Millsap; the versatility of center Mehmet Okur, a lethal three-point shooter who can also exploit smaller defenders inside; and Williams, who at week's end was averaging 18.4 points and 10.1 assists.
In the last month Williams has made his first All-Star Game appearance (in his hometown of Dallas) and earned this lofty praise from Bobcats coach Larry Brown: "I don't think there's a better player in the league than Deron Williams." Hughes added his voice to the growing chorus of those who rate Williams even with Hornets rival Chris Paul as the world's best playmaker. "Whoever is guarding him is going to need help all of the time, and if he posts up, we'll double him on the dribble," Hughes said last Saturday in Salt Lake City. "We'll spend a majority of our defensive thought process trying to stop him."
A couple of hours later Hughes watched Williams play more of a decoy role, taking just nine shots but distributing 10 assists in a comfortable 107--85 win that kept Utah fourth in the West, two games behind the second-place Mavericks. Said Williams afterward, "I just try to keep everybody happy."
If Williams is Utah's updated version of John Stockton, then the role of Karl Malone belongs to the 6'9" Boozer, who after a rough start was averaging 19.6 points and 11.1 rebounds through Sunday. Since signing with the Jazz for $70 million over six years in 2004, Boozer has played to extremes: While he's been an All-Star and an Olympic gold medalist, he's also been seen as unreliable after missing 137 games in six years.
The anticipation that Boozer would opt out of his contract last summer (he didn't) or be traded (the Jazz couldn't find a suitable partner after a season in which he missed 45 games) created a teamwide hangover that resulted in a 19--17 start. "All this talk whether I was going to be here or not be here, it was a distraction for us," says Boozer. "I played inconsistent, our guys played inconsistent."
But the good Boozer has returned, extending his range to 17 feet while upping his assists to a career-best 3.3 per game. His versatility with either hand around the basket enables the Jazz to maintain the fluid unpredictability that has defined coach Jerry Sloan's teams for 22 years. "Booz tries to do everything he's asked," says player development coach Mark McKown. "He's the first guy in the arena every game day. He even does everything like you'd want him to do in warmups. How many guys do that? Guys hate warmups."
The Jazz began to turn its season right-side-up following a 105--86 loss at Boston on Nov. 11. "It was how they beat us," says Williams. "They didn't care who got the points, who got the assists, who got the steals, it was a total team effort and they were having fun." Which is precisely how Utah is playing now.
What put Utah over the top was the reemergence of Kirilenko: Utah has gone 20--5 since Sloan restored him to the starting lineup. Over the summer the 6'9" Kirilenko gained 20 pounds of muscle. The added strength has enabled him to play through the pounding he absorbs while attacking at both ends. "It's almost like every possession he'll get a steal, he'll lead the break, he'll dunk on somebody, he'll get a jump shot, he'll get a blocked shot, he'll rebound the ball," says Boozer. "You know how LeBron, when he'll chase people down [and try to block their shot], they're looking for him? That's how people do it in the paint now when AK comes over—they look for him."
Kirilenko, 29, is a fascinating character who openly wept in frustration with his shrinking role during the 2007 playoffs, but Williams has little interest in his teammate's psyche. "That really doesn't matter to me," says Williams. "I've always been a firm believer that AK is our x factor. We go as he goes, and for whatever reason he's playing with a lot more confidence this year."
The point guard is supposed to be an extension of the coach, and Williams is a more blunt version of Sloan (if such a thing is possible). He would be a bigger off-court star if he were as outgoing as the charismatic Paul, but Williams isn't the type to fake it. "I never pay attention," he says. "Every day I come in, and the media says to me, Did you hear this, hear that, see this, see that? And I'm like, Yeah, you just told me."
"I wouldn't call Deron a political creature," says Utah G.M. Kevin O'Connor. That makes Williams the right type to lead a rotation of underdogs. Though the Jazz goes at least 10 deep, Williams is its only lottery pick; all of his teammates—including second-rounders Boozer, Okur, Millsap and forward Kyle Korver, as well as rookie starting shooting guard Wesley Matthews, an undrafted free agent—entered the league amid doubts that they would last. One reason Sloan limited Williams to 47 starts as a rookie was so that he would learn to empathize with his lesser teammates. Williams still hasn't forgiven him. "I'm looking around the league, and [fellow rookies] Raymond Felton, Chris Paul, they would get the ball and go—and I had to kind of wait," says Williams. "If I would have been given the ball the whole year, we would have made the playoffs. We missed it by two games."
The truth is, Williams still views himself as an underdog. His single mother, Denise Smith, worked two jobs and coached him in grade school, demanding that he pass the ball even if the recipient wasn't capable of finishing the play. That approach put Williams on his current path, but it was murder on his Q rating. At The Colony High in suburban Dallas he was viewed as the lesser star behind Bracey Wright (now playing in Belgium). The colleges he hoped to attend preferred other guards—North Carolina (Felton), Arizona (Salim Stoudamire), Georgia Tech (Jarrett Jack) and Texas (T.J. Ford)—so Williams spent three seasons at Illinois, where he was overshadowed by Dee Brown, who is playing in Italy.
The Jazz recognized his potential, trading up to take him with the No. 3 pick in 2005. The Hornets took Paul with the next choice; he became Rookie of the Year and has generally been regarded as the superior pro, even though Williams has won nine of their 12 NBA meetings. "It's good to have the upper hand," says Williams, who has been friends with Paul since they worked a summer camp in college. "I feel like I'm the best point guard in the league. I've felt that the last couple years, just like I'm sure [Paul] feels that way. Just like I'm sure Steve [Nash] feels that way."
At 6'3" and 207 pounds Williams is stronger than most of his peers, yet he's quick enough to stay in front of smaller guards. "He's an excellent defender," says Sloan, who doesn't joke about that kind of thing. Williams's shooting was viewed as his weakness coming out of college, but he has become a feared three-point bomber with the game in the balance. That range has opened up driving lanes that he explores like a manic fullback looking for contact. "I still wish I had played football in high school," says Williams, who seems to dwell on his few failings more than his innumerable successes.
With Boozer likely to depart as a free agent this summer, Williams has big ambitions for what appears to be their final run together: an upset of the Lakers. "Can they be beat? I think so," says Williams. "You've got to play at such a high level every game. You can't take any possessions off with them."
It's a matchup that he longs for. Can Utah's ball movement spread the floor well enough to free up the lane? Can Kirilenko & Co. hound Kobe Bryant into enough 9-for-23 nights? Can the Jazz muster enough big shots to pull out the tight games? If no one else thinks so, then that leaves Williams stubbornly liking his chances all the more.
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"AK is our x factor," says Williams. "We go as he goes, and he's playing with a lot more confidence."
Photographs by JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
ECLIPSE OF THE SUN One coach says Williams, who has had at least nine assists in 15 straight games, is better than even two-time MVP Nash.
Photograph by JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
BOOZ CRUISE In what is likely his last stand in Salt Lake City, Boozer is averaging 20.1 points since the All-Star break.
Photograph by JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
HEAVY DUTY Kirilenko has beefed up his body and—since returning to the starting lineup—his stat line.