Jazz at Clippers
TONIGHT, 8:30 p.m., KJZZ
LOS ANGELES - It always struck Mehmet Okur a little odd that when the Jazz signed two free agents to multiyear, multimillion-dollar contracts in 2004, they lavished the cash on a pair of players who preferred the same position.
"I signed before Carlos [Boozer], but I think, they have something in mind," said Okur, a power forward who agreed to his six-year contract with the Jazz a week before Boozer struck his deal. "I think, 'We'll see.' "
He didn't really get a chance to see last season, when his lack of conditioning compelled coach Jerry Sloan to bring Okur off the bench for most of the season, in something of a rotation with Boozer and Andrei Kirilenko up front.
So when Boozer returned from a four-month hamstring injury in February, Okur, now established as a starter and the Jazz's leading scorer and rebounder, wondered how he and Boozer would co-exist on the floor.
A month later, Okur has his answer: "It's working good," the Turkish forward said. "It's better than I thought."
That's because eight games ago, Sloan trimmed his rotation and stuck four forwards on the floor at the same time, with point guard Deron Williams running the offense. It was a bold move, yet utterly simple: Play your best players, no matter the position.
It's only been eight games - and a 4-4 split - but he results have been dramatic: Sloan's decision has suddenly turbo-charged the Jazz's faint offense. Utah still ranks 28th in the NBA in scoring and shooting percentage, but the offense under the four-forwards lineup is entirely different. Utah has scored 101.9 points per game since the change, an increase of more than 11 points per game; that's a scoring rate that, over an entire season, would rank third in the league.
And the shooting? The Jazz have connected on more than half of their shots in those eight games - a success rate that would easily rank No. 1 if Utah had played that way all season.
"We have more confidence," Okur said. "We know we can score."
Okur himself is enjoying a late-season renaissance in his game, which was beginning to sputter three weeks ago. His job
description calls for Okur to patrol the paint and work for layups, particularly when there are three guards or small forwards on the floor with him. That dynamic always created a mild conflict for the 6-foot-11 Okur, who isn't the most powerful presence under the basket, but whose remarkable shooting ability gives him a natural advantage on most players his size.
"Sometimes inside, sometimes outside," Okur said of his role in the Jazz's offense much of the season. "You know, it's hard to know always where is better."
Playing alongside Boozer, however, has allowed Okur to drift along the edges of the lane, looking for space. His defender invariably lags a step or two closer to the basket, which is all the room Okur needs.
"He's always liked being out there. That's one of the places we've played him a great deal," Sloan said. "It's kind of nice to have [Boozer and Okur] play together, because there are some ways they can complement each other."
That's how Okur sees it, too - which is why he is more than happy to cede the low post to Boozer and Matt Harpring.
"This is my spot now, I guess," Okur said, standing roughly 20 feet from the basket. "When Carlos and Matt are in, it's more open shots for me. They're such good inside players, it's opening up."
The drawback, Sloan said, is defense, since neither Boozer nor Okur is known as a lock-down defender. So far, teams have not exploited the Jazz's lack of size underneath, and the Jazz are able to compensate in other ways. Kirilenko, for example, is able to roam for blocked shots, and Okur is still a more-than-competent rebounder. His boards have actually gone up since Boozer returned.
"There are probably some question marks about their defense. We have some moments where it's not as good," Sloan said. No surprise: He's worried about it. "That's going to be as important to how we play as the offense. So it's something to work on, because we're not good enough to just outscore people."
Jazz at Clippers
At Staples Center, Los Angeles
Tipoff: 8:30 p.m., MST
Radio: 1320 AM, 101.1 FM
Records: Utah 34-37, Los Angeles 41-29
Season series: Tied, 1-1
All-time: Jazz lead, 81-55
At Los Angeles: Jazz lead, 24-20
Current streak: Jazz, 1 win
Last meeting: Jazz 105, Clippers 103 (March 3)
Line: Clippers by 7
About the Jazz: They are 16-19 on the road. . . . They have lost three straight road games to the Clippers. . . . The 105 points they scored in the teams' last meeting broke a 14-game streak of being held below 100 points by the Clippers. . . . F Mehmet Okur scored 29 points in the teams' last meeting. . . . They have made 42.5 percent of their shots against L.A. this season.
About the Clippers: Their next victory will clinch their first winning record since 1991-92, and third since moving to California in 1978. . . . They are in fifth place in the Western Conference, one game ahead of sixth-place Memphis. . . . They are 24-11 at home. . . . They lead the league in blocked shots at 6.28 per game.