NBA Sunday: Jazz Gearing Up For Playoff Run
Reaching the postseason isn’t exactly an unusual occurrence for the Utah Jazz. The franchise has reached the playoffs in 25 out of the past 29 season, but finds themselves attempting to make consecutive trips to the postseason for the first time without a head coach named Frank Layden or Jerry Sloan calling the shots from the sidelines.
The Jazz are currently 22-19 and sit seventh in the Western Conference standings. However, less than four games separate the club from the eleventh place Los Angeles Lakers as we approach the All-Star break.
If the Jazz manage to hold on to their playoff grip they’ll have to overcome two issues which have plagued them during the early going – picking up road victories and maintaining momentum without veteran point guard Mo Williams.
The Jazz are 9-15 away from the comfy confines of Salt Lake City, one of the worst records for a team currently holding a playoff position. On the other hand, Utah is an impressive 13-4 at home to start the season.
Third-year forward Gordon Hayward says the team has had trouble matching opponents’ energy levels on the road and that has contributed to some of the growing pains.
“It’s difficult playing on the road in this league,” Hayward said to HOOPSWORLD. “Because every team, no matter who they are or their record, has talent and usually plays especially well in front of their home crowd. So we have to be able to bring our own energy. Salt Lake City has some of the best fans in the game and they provide us with a lot of energy when we’re at home, so when we’re on the road we have to bring that ourselves.”
Jazz head coach Ty Corbin believes if the team can hover around .500 on the road and take care of business at home then the franchise will see its stock rise in the Western Conference standings.
“Well you’d like to go 41-0 on the road,” Corbin said. “But you know I think most of the good teams in this league, if you can finish a little better than .500 on the road and take care of your business at home then you’re in the 50 win range. We always want to be at least .500 or over [on the road].
“Whether your team is capable of doing it with the roster or not, you kind of look at it and see what would give you a better chance and we feel good about this group of guys. We expect a lot from ourselves. We want to finish strong from where we are now and what number that is I don’t care to say exactly what it is for us.”
Hayward believes the team will eventually be able to breakthrough and go on a road tear at some point this season.
“We’ve had a lot of road games early on,” Hayward said. “We just need to find a rhythm. I think we’re starting to do that a little bit but we’ve got to be able to put more than two or three games together. We want to get a [winning] streak of four, five or six games going at least and go from there. We’re still trying to find ourselves.”
The team has also had to adapt to the loss of Williams who underwent right thumb surgery and is out indefinitely. At the time of the injury Williams was averaging 13 points and 6.7 assists on 38 percent shooting from three-point range.
Center Al Jefferson says Williams’ injury opened minutes in the rotation for well-traveled veterans Jamaal Tinsley and Earl Watson. While the duo produces far less scoring (6.1) compared to Williams the two combine for over nine assists per game and have kept Utah’s ball movement on offense humming.
“It’s tough to lose a guy like Mo especially to that type of injury,” Jefferson told HOOPSWORLD. “But the good thing about it is Mo has been through that type of injury before and he knows it takes hard work to get back from it. We also have two veteran point guards that can hold it down until he gets back in Jamaal Tinsley and Earl Watson. It sucks not having [Mo] but we’re going to hold it down until he gets back and when he comes back he’ll pick up right where he left off.”
The Jazz play eight of their next ten games at home, venturing out of the state for clashes with the Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers.
The Jazz’s Untradeable Piece – Gordon Hayward?
When the Utah Jazz are discussed nowadays the topic tends to eventually shift to the upcoming trade deadly and whether the team will deal Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, two highly productive players who will be unrestricted free agents this summer.
One player who figures to be safe from the trading block is third year forward Gordon Hayward who is having a career season scoring the ball (13.5), despite playing roughly five minutes less per night than a season ago.
Jazz head coach Ty Corbin says Hayward is a valuable part of Utah’s future moving forward and expects Hayward to be given a bigger role as the seasons treads along.
“He’s a huge part of what we’re doing on both ends of the floor and we need him to be effective for us,” Corbin told HOOPSWORLD.
“He’s playing effective for us coming off the bench,” Corbin added. “He’s playing good minutes for us. He’ll have the ball in his hands a lot. We’re playing him at longer stretches during the game, so if his total minutes are down he’s played in longer stretches during the course of the game which gives him the opportunity to get more touches in there.”
Hayward is ready to embrace the challenge set forth by Corbin and the coaching staff and says he doesn’t mind if the extra opportunities are at shooting guard or small forward.
“I wanted to improve as a player,” Hayward said. “One of my goals each year is to try and get better compared to the last. So I came in with that mindset and have tried to be more aggressive this year and do whatever I can to help us win games.”
“I can play either or,” Hayward added on what position he prefers most – shooting guard or small forward. “Especially with our offense they’re pretty much the same thing; you’re just a wing player. It matters defensively and that can change on any given night depending on if they want me to guard someone at the two or the three, but it doesn’t matter to me.”
The Jazz have eight players on the current roster who will be free agents this summer with Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Mo Williams, Raja Bell, Randy Foye, Earl Watson, Jamaal Tinsley and Kevin Murphy all expiring at season’s end.
Next season’s Jazz lineup may contain a plethora of new faces, but based on Corbin’s messaging Hayward will be a source of familiarity in the rotation.
Atlanta Hawks Lose Lou Williams To Knee Injury
The Atlanta Hawks spent most of the season entrenched in the Eastern Conference’s top three, but the month of January has not been kind to the franchise. The Hawks have won only two out of their last ten contests and have slid all the way down to sixth place in the East.
During this slide, the team has had to overcome injuries to guard Devin Harris and a suspension of team leader power forward Josh Smith for conduct detrimental to the team.
Harris and Smith are both back in the lineup, but the club’s latest blow will linger, potentially into next season as well.
High scoring veteran guard Lou Williams tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) during Friday’s loss against the Brooklyn Nets. He will miss the remainder of the season and likely a portion of the 2013-14 campaign as well.
The exact date of the upcoming surgery has yet to be determined.
“We are extremely disappointed for Lou and our thoughts and support will be with him during his recovery,” said President of Basketball Operations and General Manager Danny Ferry. “He has been a complete professional in every sense of the word and know that approach, along with his work ethic, will serve him well in his rehabilitation.”
Williams signed a three-year deal with the Hawks last summer in free agency and was the team’s third leading scorer (14.1) this season in 39 contests (nine starts). Williams was also the only Hawk other than Jeff Teague and Zaza Pachulia to play in all of the team’s games before the injury.
Williams’ injury will force Hawks head coach Larry Drew to find more scoring off the bench and likely thrust rookie guard John Jenkins into a more prominent role in the rotation. The Hawks are battling injuries in the backcourt to DeShawn Stevenson, Anthony Morrow and Devin Harris has continued to be hampered by an assortment of leg and foot ailments.