The list of concerns for the Utah Jazz coming into the season was fairly substantial with six fresh faces. It ranged from perimeter shooting to black holes, and while in the preseason and on paper the Jazz appeared to possess depth the opposite has in fact been the reality thus far.
Until last night.
As is often the case, Jerry's Jazz came out with the first few offensive possessions scripted in an attempt to establish the low post early. This means the ball goes to Big Al Jefferson. It's also meant that time suddenly stops for everyone else on the floor. They just stand there as if frozen in time and space at the event horizon of a black hole.
Al Jefferson passes from the post
Big Al has freely admitted that being a "black hole" has been a problem for him throughout his career. It's an old habit acquired from his years in Minnesota where there was little structure in the offense, if any at all. That he managed to put up 20-10s while double or triple teamed is amazing, but that doesn't fly in the Sloan system.
Sloan expects his big men to be able to pass. He also expects the rest of the offense to continue to move --cutters cutting, screens setting-- but this hadn't been the case up until now. The ball would go into Al and the offense would come to a complete standstill while he went to work as he's always done. And the offense has stuttered because of it.
All that would change beginning with the win over the Hawks.
Early on, while the script was still in effect, Jefferson got one on the low block and --gasp!-- kicked it back out to Andrei Kirilenko who nailed an 18-footer. This would become a theme, with the pair teaming up on two more occasions for kick-out dimes.
And the rest of the guys kept the offense flowing this time.
Where they'd previously become a part of the crowd just watching a ballgame, they this time kept cutting. The end result was Al Jefferson tying a career high in assists with six, hitting cutters AK, Deron Williams, and Paul Millsap for easy buckets.
Four of Al's six assists would come by way of Andrei Kirilenko. Could these two be finding a rhythm that could cause major problems for the opposition? It certainly appeared to be so last night.
Andrei was everywhere
Kirilenko is key to the Jazz's success. He's like glue to the team concept so important to their way of doing things. Not only was he diving on the floor for loose balls early in the contest, he also addressed two of the areas of concern for the ball club; perimeter shooting and rebounding.
We automatically cringe every time AK cocks and pops from range. His years of working one-on-one with perimeter shooting guru Jeff Hornacek haven't paid dividends in seasons past. But they are this time around.
With the loss of all-time 3-point-percentage shooter Kyle Korver we all worried about where the Jazz would find some consistent points from mid-to-long distance, hoping 41% career 3-shooter Raja Bell would be the one to pick up the slack, but he hasn't.
Andrei leads the team in 3-pt% so far this season on 2.0 attempts per-game hitting 61% of his tries. And while the mid-range jumper is still somewhat hit-or-miss, it is more consistent that it has been in years past. Throw in AK's 83% from the free throw line on 4.4 FTAs per-game and he's knocking down a more-than-respectable .596 True Shooting percentage.
Last night was also the first time in the 2010-2011 season that he's reached double-digits in rebounding, giving the team a much-needed boost with his first double-double of the season. That's a big deal for a squad that's had three players, Jefferson, Millsap, and Williams, garnering over 60% of the team's total rebounding by themselves.
The Hawks grabbed five offensive boards in the first quarter of the contest. Thanks in large part to AK they'd get only six more in the following three quarters of play.
Giving teams second-chance buckets has been a big problem for the Jazz this year, so arresting that alarming statistical category is a big deal. Al and AK would lead the team in defensive rebounds in the win over Atlanta with eight each.
Andrei led the Jazz with 4 of their 15 offensive boards as Utah won the rebounding battle 43-41.
And there was one other critical area Andrei led the Jazz. He anchored an awesome performance from Utah's bench.
Jazz bench The Walking Dead no more
Something I noticed several games ago now was that the Jazz's bench was MIA. They were getting smoked every second they were out there and that didn't change until last night.
37 seconds into the 4th quarter the Hawks would take an eleven point lead.
Enter Earl Watson.
As has been the case for four straight games, a double-digit lead would be nothing less than the kiss of death for the opposition.
Over the next five minutes these second-stringers would beat down Josh Smith, Joe Johnson, and Al Horford to tie it up at 78 on an AK trey, giving the starters much-needed rest so that they'd have enough gas in the tank to finish off Atlanta.
While they weren't statistically outstanding last night, the Jazz's bench would combine for an astounding +38 last night, highlighted by Fesenko's +13, Miles' +10, Watson's +9.
Sloan has had to lean on the starters heavily thus far to get wins. It couldn't continue if the Jazz wanted to have anything left for a potential playoff run come spring. The bench has needed to step up and they finally did so.
Jerry has been searching for a combination that will work when the starters are sitting and he hit on a winning combo in this victory. However, don't expect him to keep trotting out the same guys game after game. He likes to mix and match his lineups based on several factors including man matchups and who has the hot hand. It also makes it a lot harder to scout for opposing teams if they're not sure what's coming.
We also finally got another look at rookie phenom Jeremy Evans, whose athleticism and energy are infectious. His +8 off the pine was a critical part of the run that put the Jazz in a position to win out against the top three teams in what many consider the best division in all of basketball.
Earl hooked up with Evans for an unreal alley oop during the comeback, something we'd all like to see more of in the coming weeks. The second-rounder adds a threat to finish at the rim in a spectacular way that's been missing from the Jazz since the departure of Ronnie Brewer a season ago.
As the season grinds on we'll be able to look back at this game as a turning point in Utah's growth, as they continue to fill the gaps and holes in their game as a whole. Just imagine how scary-good this squad can be when they actually start to put together this kind of effort on a four-quarter basis while getting contributions from every facet of the game.