First, it looked like the Jazz were set up for a rebuilding season. With a roster full of raw, inexperienced bigs, and a point guard coming off of a down year, smart money was on Utah finding its way to the lottery. After a 1-3 start, including a 25-point loss, 17-point loss and 15-point loss, nobody was shocked
Then, the Jazz went on a major run. From January 2-21, Utah rattled off nine wins in 11 games to improve to 10-5 on the season. They beat the Nuggets on the road, the (at the time) contending Grizzlies, and the upstart Wolves. In the middle of the run, Utah picked up a signature 29-point victory over the Clippers -- though without Chris Paul -- that included eight different players scoring at least eight points. All of the sudden, it looked like it was time to take the Baby Jazz seriously.
Seven losses in 11 games later, the momentum is gone, and the wind is out of Utah's sails.
What had been carrying the Jazz was a pair of factors. First, their one-two punch in the paint of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. Jefferson's numbers (18.7 points, 9.1 rebounds) are right on par with last year, and Millsap has thrived in managed minutes (31 per game) to the tune of 16.3 points, 9.6 boards and 51.5 percent shooting. Possessing a pair of double-double threats creates plenty of mismatches, and the Jazz were taking advantage.
The other was a stretch of games that included both struggling and injured opponents. As mentioned above, they got the Clippers without Paul. They beat the Grizzlies without Zach Randolph. Minnesota was without Anthony Randolph -- all right, maybe not so much. But of their other six wins in that stretch, five came against bad teams: Cleveland, Golden State, Milwaukee, New Orleans and New Jersey.
When you're playing second-division teams, a pair of studs underneath is enough. But when you are matched up with Dallas, or a healthy Clippers team, or the Pacers, or OKC -- all teams Utah has lost to in the last three weeks -- your flaws will be exposed.
And Utah has plenty of them. Devin Harris is again showing that he's not a primetime point guard by any stretch. Gordon Hayward (26.2 percent from three), C.J. Miles (39.9 percent from the field) and Josh Howard (37.3 percent from the field) have all been inconsistent. And when you consider that those four players, after Jefferson and Millsap, have played the biggest role in this team's offense, your in trouble.
As expected prior to the season, this will be a rebuilding year for the Jazz. We'll get to continue to watch Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter evolve, and on some nights, Jefferson and Millsap will be enough to get the win. But in a loaded West, Utah's playoff dreams are just that . . . dreams.
Your other Week 7 observations:
Mavericks, Magic up . . .
With a win over Portland last Saturday, Dallas secured its fourth winning streak of at least three games this season. That tells us that when the Mavericks are on, they're difficult to beat. They're beating quality opponents, too: four of their last six wins have come against Western Conference teams with winning records. It's premature to consider them a favorite in the West, especially considering how well San Antonio and the Clippers are playing. But the formula for veteran teams has always been survive the regular season, and do your damage in the postseason. The Mavs look like they have the chops to do just that, thus their eight-spot jump to No. 7.
In Orlando, as usual, who knows what we'll be writing about a week from now. The important thing is that they've looked good lately, their only two losses in February coming in overtime against winning teams. And for that reason, they too jumped eight spots, now eighth in the rankings.
. . . Blazers, T-Wolves, Cavs down
Minnesota is, too: the Wolves are one of the league's most up-and-down teams because of their inexperience and their relative unfamiliarity -- how long have Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Love been playing together, again?
Portland, though, is an enigma. So much so that the Blazers are on the verge of moving Jamal Crawford to starting point guard. Raymond Felton, of course, hasn't helped, averaging 10.5 points per game on 37.3 percent shooting, including 20 percent from three. But is Crawford really the answer at point guard for a competitive Western Conference team? He was brought in to score and to be a spark off the bench. J. Crossover can handle the ball and he can score, but he hasn't averaged five assists per game since the 2007-08 season. Somebody needs to be able to get LaMarcus Aldridge the ball, and I don't think Crawford is that guy.
Sixers survive, but not unscathed
Philadelphia is now 9-6 in their last 15, a stretch that includes 5-5 against teams with above-.500 records. The Sixers would like to believe they are title contenders, and that they can hang with the Bulls and the Heat in the Eastern Conference. I still don't see it. To beat either of those teams, you need an elite scorer, and Philadelphia lacks that. And Lou Williams isn't that guy: he's shooting just a hair of 40 percent since Jan. 1. That won't cut it.
Liking Lin and the Knicks
Before the season started, I picked the Knicks to fall in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Heat. Well, guess what: I'm not totally backing down . . . with a couple of qualifications.
The way I see it, there are two issues: the Bulls, and the fact that Jeremy Lin, of all people restored my faith. On the former, it looks like Derrick Rose's back problems aren't a minor issue. "Seeing a specialist" is something you never want your star player doing. The Bulls are incompetent on offense without him, so if Rose isn't 100 percent, Chicago could find themselves upset early in the playoffs.
With Lin, he needs to prove that he can handle the grind, and that he can handle Melo. Yes, Mike D'Antoni will definitely need to work to help Lin adjust to playing big minutes, but remember: Lin gets a nice new pick-and-roll toy in Amar'e Stoudemire starting Tuesday. Translation: Lin's job will get easier.
The bigger question mark lies in the success of a marriage between Lin and Carmelo Anthony. Anthony doesn't thrive in the pick-and-roll as Lin does, and we already have a case study (see: Landry Fields) of young players falling flat in Anthony's iso offense. If D'Antoni was looking for a new opportunity to prove his offensive genius, this is it. And if he pulls it off? There's reason to believe the Knicks could be relevant deep in the playoffs.
Just some tidbits from Charlotte's 3-24 start:
- Charlotte hasn't scored 100 points during their 14-game losing streak, and have scored just 90 points twice.
- The Bobcats have lost nine of their 24 games by at least 20 points.
- Gerald Henderson, who touts a career scoring average of 8.2 points per game, is leading Charlotte in scoring (15.0 PPG). And of course, he's injured.
- They are shooting 29.2 percent from three, largely thanks to Corey Maggette (23.5 percent) and Boris Diaw (27.3 percent).
- Charlotte has three more wins than they should have.