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Dallas • Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor has often said he doesn't buy into the idea Utah is rebuilding, going so far as to state his distaste for the "R" word.
Jazz guard Raja Bell joined his GM's side Friday night. Not in body, but in spirit.
After Utah watched a two-point deficit late in the third quarter swell to a 116-101 beatdown by the Dallas Mavericks at the American Airlines Center, the 12-year veteran said the Jazz clearly have enough talent to win games. Utah proved that by starting a lockout-shortened campaign 9-4, winning eight of nine to become the early-season surprise in the NBA.
But while the Jazz have continued to show fight during recent contests, Utah has also failed to finish games and at times has reverted to its early-season problems, highlighted by a stagnant offense and a porous defense.
Veterans such as Bell, C.J. Miles and Earl Watson said the message is clear. If the Jazz want to return to the playoffs and create a buffer for a grueling 34-game stretch during February and March that will see them play 21 contests on the road, Utah has to find a way to fill its holes. And after watching the Jazz (10-7) drop three of four, Bell knows his team doesn't have any time to lose.
"Look, if you can win games, you can win games, whether they're close or not close. I don't make any excuses for us down the stretch," he said. "We have to be able to win games like this if we want to be a good team."
He added: "This one hurts. I don't think it's a panic situation, but it hurts. We've got to learn these lessons and we've got to learn them quick."
Wing players including Bell, Miles and Gordon Hayward said they've already absorbed one crucial point. After watching big men Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson carry Utah through its early-season run, the Jazz have become too reliant on the duo to will the team to victory.
Millsap delivered again Friday, scoring a team-high 20 points, while Jefferson played through an ankle injury to pour in 19. But as Dallas (12-8) continually mixed an all-around offensive attack that saw speedy reserve point guard Rodrigue Beaubois (game-high 22 points) rip apart Utah's interior at the same time Jason Terry, Lamar Odom and Vince Carter fired away from the perimeter, the Jazz continued to perform as a two-man show.
Hayward and Bell disappeared from Utah's offense; Miles was frustrated by Dallas' length and size; Jazz point guard Devin Harris failed to score in the second half and took just one shot after recording 10 points during the initial two quarters.
"We've gotten to a point where [Millsap and Jefferson] are so good that we start to watch them sometimes," Miles said. "And then a couple times when they get going, we ride them for so long … when [a defense] changes it up, we take ourselves out of rhythm by just standing and watching."
Utah's defense was just as culpable, giving up a game-changing 28-9 Mavs run that bridged the third and fourth quarters.
During a 10-game stretch from Jan. 2-19, the Jazz went 8-2 and held eight opponents to 96 points or less. That blitz followed the turning point in Utah's season, a 15-point road blowout loss to San Antonio on Dec. 31 an embarrassing defeat that left Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin challenging his team to stand up for itself and fight for its identity.
But the Jazz have reverted to their poor early-season form during two consecutive losses. Utah watched an 18-point lead against Toronto disappear on Wednesday, eventually giving up 111 points in a double-overtime home loss. The Jazz then allowed Dallas to rack up a season-high 116 points on 54.9 percent shooting from the floor and 57.9 percent behind the 3-point line, despite the Mavericks playing without Dirk Nowitzki and Delonte West. Starting point guard Jason Kidd also left the game early during the first quarter due to a right calf strain.
Dallas wasn't at full strength. Utah was. But the Mavericks often outran, outshot and outmuscled the Jazz, leaving Utah looking like a rebuilding team instead of one aiming for the playoffs.
Asked if his team had returned to reality, Corbin's voice stiffened. Utah played hard and showed fight, he said, and everything remains a work in progress. But Corbin also acknowledged where Utah stands with a season-defining two-month test less than a week away.
"We're still a 10-7 team. We're going to fight for everything we get," Corbin said. "And that's the way it's going to be. We expected that right from the beginning."
R The Jazz drop their third game in four after Dallas pulls away late.