It was a tough last couple of games.
It was tough because the team finally looked like the Jazz we dreamed of, because the offense was clicking, because we got a season's worth of highlights in two games, because those highlights reminded us of the awesome stretch last year ...
And it's that BUT that makes us a little gloomy. It happened against two teams the Jazz were supposed to defeat. It happened against two teams with ghastly defense. It happened against two teams that don't come close to resembling the tough opponents in the West. And on and on. There were a thousand ways to talk ourselves out of getting hopeful.
And yet we still feel hopeful. Because, even though all those things are true the Jazz played crummy teams and crummy defenses in December and November, and they never clicked like THAT.
So we hope. Then we kick ourselves for getting our hopes up. Then we hide in a closet and laugh giddily. Then we come out and berate ourselves for setting ourselves up for the inevitable letdown.
But there are a couple things in these recent games that I'm simply stoked about.
In both games AK was the first starter pulled out for a rest, in both halves. Then he came out again and played the PF spot with the bench. It is pretty much the ideal way to dole out his playing time. He plays so well with the bench because Earl's style meshes with AK's skills so perfectly.
I love the lineup of Memo, AK, CJ, Ronnie, and Earl. It's simply golden. I will definitely miss the Fes and Elson frontcourt. But there's no doubt that a healthy Memo paired with AK is simply better.
I love that Sloan is playing Gordon to end the 1st half. It gives Hayward real playing time, when both teams are still doing their best to win ... but it's not in a situation where a single gaffe could cost the Jazz the game. It's a great spot for Gordon to get experience, build confidence, and earn more playing time.
I loved Sloan's lineup to start the 4th against NY: Al, AK, CJ, Deron, Earl. My bet is it's temporary. That it happened mostly because they're trying to limit Memo's minutes. But what it does is gives 3 of our slow-start-starters the chance to develop better habits with the leaders of SWARM. And it was Al's presence I particularly loved. I think he's in the most need of developing good habits in this area.
I love keeping Earl at PG with Deron at SG for a few minutes in both halves. I love it because Earl is the heart of SWARM, he's the best backup PG we've ever had (including Eisley, methinks), and it lets Deron capitalize on his absurdly effective scoring this year without worrying about doing the regular PG stuff.
I love that Jerry played both 4th quarters with guys who were playing really well. One of the most common criticisms regarding Sloan is he sticks to a particular substitution pattern regardless of what's happening in the game. Well, it didn't happen those two games. He went with different lineups, lineups that made sense according to who was playing well each game.
More than anything else, I love Earl's energy and defensive tenacity. He is just something to behold. And I don't care what his scoring average is compared to CJ's, Earl is the real 6th Man of the team. In fact, I'm already preparing a plethora of rants to post this season about how important it is for the Jazz to resign Earl—it will make what I said about Wesley Matthews last summer look like a couple scribbles on a napkin.
I loved that the starting lineup actually looked alive in both 1st quarters. I actually wish I could go back and rewatch the games, just to try to pinpoint exactly how they were different. Though it may have been they simply attacked and dunked the ball from the beginning.
And the dunks! Holy crap, the dunks! AK, Al, Millsap, CJ all going in the paint for dunks. Like multiple times. So now we know the really can do it.
And the transition baskets and fast breaks! The team is simply so much better when they push the tempo and play briskly. I saw Deron's casual little trot up the court so much less. Even off opponents' made baskets, there was a whole lot more running across midcourt than walking.
SWARM will win more wars than they will lose. They're just too active, too tenacious. And it all starts with Earl. I'd be so pissed off at him if I was an opposing PG with him buzzing around me, bumping me, swiping for the ball every other second. My golly, it is beautiful to behold.
Plain old regular solid, but not great defense.
They can't do SWARM defense for 48 minutes. It simply can't be done. But what they need to do is play decent, solid defense the other times. Trading baskets kind of defense. So a 20-point lead stays a 20-point lead. The problem was in these two games I saw either SWARM or an atrocity. Giving up a 20-point lead within 6 minutes kind of "defense." That won't do. The relaxed defense has to still be solid.
I noticed this two Fridays ago—the Jazz/Hawks game. The Jazz got down big early again. They fought back to within 8-10. Their defense really picked up. There were several posessions the Jazz played great D for the entire shot-clock, but the Hawks ended up scoring on a tough shot anyway. Our guys' shoulders immediately slumped, heads nodded back in frustration, and they all let out a collective, weary sigh. I could almost hear their thoughts: "we play great defense and they still score."
Well, that won't work. Honestly scoring two points in basketball is one of the easiest things to do in all of sports. The greatest defenses in the league give up almost 2 points per minute. That's once every other possession. The best defense in the universe will get scored on a lot.
But great, energized, frenzied, tough defense WILL give up scores on only 6-7 out of 20 possessions instead of 10 or 11. You have to think long-term. "We didn't beat them this time down the court, but we'll make life miserable for them for 8 straight minutes and in the long-term, it will make a difference."
It's kind of like Hank Aaron's answer when asked what it is like knowing he'll get a couple hits every game. He said he didn't know if he'd get two hits at any game. But if he didn't, he'd sure as hell get them the next.
We didn't see mental toughness against the Knicks or the Cavs because they crumpled into a heap the instant intense defense came up. The real test is how the team reacts when they play tough defense for 3 straight possessions—and give up scores each time. Do the Jazz give up? Or do they stick with it, knowing that in the long run it will make a difference.
That's what I hope we can see this road trip.
Other than that, there was a lot to be excited about. Al played and shot very well. Millsap played well and got to rest his sore hip. AK was spectacular, especially as the PF with SWARM. Raja played great. Deron was happy. Earl was awesome. CJ shot well and only took about 3 shots he shouldn't have. Ronnie was great. Gordon got playing time. Memo was really good—especially on the other things besides his shot.
And that was the best. Because sometimes shots don't fall and the question is: What else can you do to hep the team win?
For a couple of games, at least, the answer for everybody was "a helluva lot."
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