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The first major, visible cracks in the Jazz's armor appeared Wednesday night.
Guards Raja Bell and Deron Williams pointed them out. As did coach Jerry Sloan and veteran center Francisco Elson, after a 110-87 blowout defeat by the Atlanta Hawks at EnergySolutions Arena before a sellout crowd of 19,911.
The humbling loss was characterized by everything that has plagued an up-and-down Utah team this season that leads the Northwest Division by one game but has at times appeared absolutely uninterested in meeting its own high expectations. And it was highlighted by yet another slow start, an obvious lack of energy and a soft approach to a tough game.
But where a resilient Jazz team has often been able to answer off nights with will and determination this season, Utah (24-12) lacked both against the Hawks (24-14). Moreover, the Jazz were playing a strong, winning club one that shot as well as it ran, and went for the throat as soon as it had a chance.
Utah? It just backed down.
The Jazz's loss rivaled a 29-point blowout to New Orleans on Dec. 17, which was also characterized by a lack of energy and cohesion. But there was a larger picture looming. Utah is 9-7 in its past 16 games. All seven losses have been against teams with winning records, while only one win has been versus a club with a better-than-.500 mark.
Williams asserted last week that Utah was not as good as its record, with a series of thrilling comeback victories covering up major holes. Wednesday he went further, acknowledging that the Jazz are not making enough long-term progress as the season approaches a midway point
"Obviously we're struggling, then," said Williams, when asked about Utah's mark against winning clubs. "We're not beating the caliber of teams that we're going to be playing in the playoffs if we get to the playoffs."
While Sloan said that a change to Utah's starting lineup was not an answer his options are limited, as everyone from Paul Millsap and C.J. Miles to Mehmet Okur and Andrei Kirilenko have recently dealt with injuries several Jazz players had strong ideas about what troubles the team when it fails to perform at its expected high level.
Miles said that Utah has a tendency to come out soft and overconfident against the NBA's elite, while Bell stated that the Jazz simply cannot play inconsistent, mid-level-type basketball when manning up against the best the league has to offer.
To Bell, it is quickly becoming too late in the year for a Utah team that lacks true star power to still be struggling with its focus and overall identity.
"At this point, you should know what your job is," Bell said. "It's a tough question, man I don't want to put my foot in my mouth. But we don't stick together some nights. We don't. And when we don't, we're going to get beat."
Utah played without Millsap, the team's starting power forward and second-leading average scorer and rebounder, who missed his first game of the season due to a thigh bruise.
Elson filled in for Millsap. Minimal offensive production from Elson (zero points on 0-of-1 shooting), combined with the lack of Millsap's normal toughness and intensity, hurt the Jazz. As did Williams' inability to thrive in the pick and roll.
But Utah primarily inflicted its own pain.
The Jazz were burned easily and often along the perimeter and in transition. And it was not just that Atlanta sank shots it was that the Hawks were often waiting and wide open when the ball appeared. Led by a game-high 28 points from Joe Johnson and 26 from Jamal Crawford, Atlanta connected on 56 percent (14 of 25) of its 3-point attempts, 50.6 percent (40 of 79) of its field goals and recorded 15 fast-break points.
The Jazz trailed 20-6 midway through the first quarter and 55-41 at halftime. Utah's night then bottomed out midway through the fourth, when Crawford converted a four-play, making it 98-73 Atlanta with 8:34 to go.
"This is not the way the Utah Jazz play," Elson said.
He added: "It's kind of hard to say specifically what we need to do and how we need to change stuff. But there comes a time and point where, basically, everybody has to step up and say something, because this is getting out of hand. And [this] was a perfect example, man: We got our asses handed to us."
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