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Provide almost any NBA team with an entire six-month regular season and it will still never accomplish what the Jazz did during a recent five-game run.
Utah pulled off five consecutive comeback victories while facing a combined 88-point deficit. Five thrilling, resilient rallies that strengthened the confidence, will and self-belief of a team that was already touting its off-the-court chemistry before the 2010-11 campaign began.
"I've never been a part of a team that's done this night in and night out for five straight nights," Jazz guard Raja Bell said.
He added: "We have a good foundation. The nuts and bolts are in place. That work ethic, that heart, our dedication to each other those are the things that allow you to get back in the ballgame. … You have to have that foundation to be able to claw your way out of holes like we have been doing."
Utah's rise began Nov. 6, when the Jazz pulled out a 109-107 double-overtime home victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. At the time, the win appeared to be more of a reminder about the challenges that an in-transition Utah team faced than a harbinger of sudden ascension. The Jazz trailed the lowly Clippers by 18 points late during the second quarter. It then required 54 exhausting minutes from Utah guard Deron Williams and his desperate, last-second, length-of-the-court drive and ensuing game-winning layup to deliver victory for the Jazz, evening the team's early-season record at 3-3.
Big picture, though, Utah seemed to be in trouble. The offense was stagnant; the bench was inconsistent. Everyone from starting center Al Jefferson to veteran reserve point guard Earl Watson was struggling to find a rhythm. Moreover, the Jazz were facing a four-game, five-day road trip that did not possess a soft spot. Contests against Miami, Orlando, Atlanta and Charlotte all highlighted Utah's weak points a lack of athleticism, depth and perimeter shooting and each team had made the Eastern Conference playoffs last season.
The Jazz would surely go 2-2, 1-3 or 0-4, bottoming out 10 games into a new year. Right?
Utah shocked its opponents and the rest of the NBA, rolling off four consecutive come-from-behind road victories. During the process, the Jazz became the toast of the league. Detailed replays of the surprising rallies each unique and inspiring became a regular early-rotation feature on ESPN's "SportsCenter." Paul Millsap was crowned as a Twitter trending topic, courtesy of his career-high 46-point outburst versus the Heat. Jefferson dressed up to grace the TNT NBA in-game studio, trading jokes and smiles with big-name commentators. National writers documented and praised Utah's nightly resurgence. Even Jazz coach Jerry Sloan momentarily allowed his feet to float off the ground, glowing about the late-game execution of the player who absolutely refuses to lose: Williams.
"He's been sensational. … He's put us in those positions. Making tough plays and pushing the ball up the floor," said Sloan, who acknowledged that Williams' recent five-game output rivaled the best of his career.
Factor in that Utah plays 12 of its next 14 games at home and the Jazz have the potential to not just remain atop the Northwest Division but hold one of the best overall records in the NBA by mid-December.
"We know we've got a group of hard-working guys," Utah guard C.J. Miles said. "We don't feel like it's over until the fat lady sings, no matter what's going on."
He added: "We know how the game is. We know it evens out. We know it's a game of runs. We know there's still 24 minutes of basketball left [after halftime], no matter if we're up or we're down. We just do a good job of not panicking."
However, to say that all is perfectly serene with the state of Jazz basketball would be an overstatement. There is no doubt that Williams is a winner, Millsap is on the rise and Jefferson is finding his way. There is also no doubt that increased consistency from starter Andrei Kirilenko and improved energy from Utah's bench have propelled the team, while players' focus, pride and commitment to Sloan's demanding system are currently the envy of the NBA.
But what about the team's frustrating penchant for slow starts? The Jazz were down 22 to the Heat, 18 to the Magic and 19 to the Bobcats. Sloan, Williams, Jefferson and Watson topped the list of those who said Utah's late-game resiliency will tap out at some point.
"Eventually, it will catch up to us. You can't do that forever," said Watson, who stated that good teams do anything and everything they can to claim victory on the road. At EnergySolutions Arena, though, Watson hopes that the Jazz will be buoyed by boisterous sold-out crowds and instantly feed off the energy.
But a loud, buzzing arena will not repair Utah's inconsistent defense. Nor will it fix the Jazz's perimeter offense, which ranks tied for 18th out of 30 teams in 3-point percentage (34.7). Utah's outside game has been held down by rough shooting starts from Gordon Hayward, Ronnie Price, Watson and Bell, all of whom are hitting less than 36.8 percent of their field goals.
"I've been a little frustrated, personally," Bell said. "I've never really started off the season in a slump."
Still, 10 games into the season, the Jazz would be hard-pressed to find themselves in a better position. Not many thought that Utah would be 7-3 after losing Carlos Boozer, Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver during the offseason. And few if any believed the Jazz would return to Salt Lake City flying high after a perfect 4-0 road trip, having shocked, surprised and eventually overcome four of the Eastern Conference's elite.
"We're excited to be able to dig in there and play those type of games, man," Miles said. "There's nothing like your back against the wall, and being able to push that person down and walk over them when it's over."
Date Opponent Deficit Final
Nov. 6 Los Angeles Clippers 18 109-107, 2OT, Jazz
Tuesday Miami 22 116-114, OT, Jazz
Wednesday Orlando 18 104-94, Jazz
Friday Atlanta 11 90-86, Jazz
Saturday Charlotte 19 96-95, Jazz
Stats during last five games
Pts. Reb. Ast.
Paul Millsap 24.4 7.8 1.4
Deron Williams 24.4 4.8 10.8
Al Jefferson 15 8.6 2.4
Thunder vs. Jazz
P At EnergySolutions Arena
Tipoff • 7 p.m.
TV • FSN Utah
Radio • 1320 AM, 1600 AM, 98.7 FM
Records • Thunder 5-3, Jazz 7-3
Last meeting • Jazz, 120-99 (Oct. 31)
About the Thunder • Forward Kevin Durant leads the league in average scoring (28.9). … Oklahoma City ranks 25th in the NBA in field goal percentage (43.9) and last in 3-point percentage (23.1). … Russell Westbrook's 36 points led the Thunder to a 110-108 win over Portland on Friday.
About the Jazz • Utah is shooting 45.8 percent from the field while limiting opponents to 43.5 percent shooting. … Andrei Kirilenko is shooting 57.1 percent behind the 3-point line, ranking second on the team in the category. … Rookie Gordon Hayward has totaled just five points and 25 minutes during the Jazz's five-game winning streak.
V Check The Tribune's Jazz Notes blog at sltrib.com/Blogs/jazznotes for exclusive news, interviews, video and analysis.
Jazz guard C.J. Miles on five consecutive comeback victories: "We're excited to be able to dig in there and play those type of games, man. There's nothing like your back against the wall, and being able to push that person down and walk over them when it's over."