|Sloan: Jazz making progress|
|Written by Admin|
|Saturday, 17 May 2008 12:30|
Coach Jerry Sloan feels they're getting closer, though.
Utah was knocked out of the playoffs by the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals on Friday, one round earlier than last spring but considerably ahead of where the team was just a few years ago.
``You'd like to take that giant step, but this is who we are and you kind of have to do it in stages,'' Sloan said Saturday as the Jazz cleaned out their lockers. ``This basketball team here has a good future if they work at it and put their heart into it. And they've done a lot of that.''
Sloan's 20th season coaching the Jazz ended with a 108-105 loss to the Lakers in Game 6. Utah trailed badly through the first three quarters, then pulled a complete turnaround in the fourth and pushed the Lakers until the final seconds.
That's kind of how the season was - inconsistent.
The Jazz had the best home record in the NBA at 37-4 in the regular season, but were just 17-24 on the road. Utah won road games at Boston and Detroit - which had the top two records in the NBA - but lost at Miami, New York and Charlotte.
Forward Matt Harpring said playing consistently is really all the Jazz are missing.
``It's tough to do it for 82 games and then the playoffs, but if we can ever get to the point where we do that we have the talent to go far,'' Harpring said.
Harpring, who turns 32 at the end of the month, is the only Utah player in his 30s and everybody but reserve guard C.J. Miles is under contract for next season.
Point guard Deron Williams followed up his breakout second season with an even better third year and established himself as the team's leader at age 23. He was the only member of the Jazz to average more than 20 points in the 12 playoff games and also had 10 assists per game in the postseason.
Williams played every game of the regular season and averaged 18.8 points and 10.5 assists as the Jazz improved from 51 wins last season to 54 this year. He had 862 assists in the regular season, the most for an Utah player since John Stockton had 860 in 1996-97.
He also had 50 assists over a three-game span in March, an accomplishment Stockton - the NBA's career leader in assists - never accomplished. Five years after Stockton's retirement, Utah has finally found a replacement.
Williams is eligible for a contract extension this summer and the Jazz will be trying to reach a deal that keeps him in Utah for the next several years. It's going to cost them.
``He's a super player. Guys that have that kind of knowledge of the game at that age and see what's going on in the game is really kind of rare,'' Sloan said. ``I can't say enough positive about him because you've heard it already.''
Leading scorer and rebounder Carlos Boozer was an All-Star for the second straight year and still has two more years on his contract. Center Mehmet Okur, forward Andrei Kirilenko and shooting guard Ronnie Brewer, who earned a starting job in training camp before his second season, are also all back next season.
Kirilenko seemed to work through the personal issues with Sloan that led him to ask to be traded shortly before training camp. He is not the first scoring option as he was before the Jazz added Boozer, Okur and Williams, but can live with his more limited role.
His scoring average dropped to 11 points, but Kirilenko made more than half his shots for the first time in his career was still a defensive threat and led the Jazz with 109 blocked shots.
``I kind of changed my priorities and I was kind of concentrating on helping my teammates more defensively,'' he said.
After releasing veteran guard Derek Fisher last summer for personal reasons, the Jazz still won their second straight Northwest Division title and their second straight playoff berth. Last season, Utah lost to eventual-champion San Antonio 4-1 in the conference finals in the first trip to the postseason for most of the Jazz players.
This year Utah could not match the Lakers and Kobe Bryant, who is backing up his league MVP award by averaging more than 33 points in the postseason. But the series against the Lakers was much closer than last year's matchup with the Spurs.
The Jazz lost the first two games in Los Angeles, won the next two at home and had a chance to take Game 5 but lost 111-104 at Staples Center. Utah's chances in Game 6 Friday looked hopeless until the fourth quarter rally, when Okur and Williams missed 3-pointers that could have tied it in the final seconds.
The only major addition from last year's team was forward Kyle Korver, who Utah picked up in a trade with Philadelphia on Dec. 29. He gave the Jazz a shooting threat they lacked and Utah went from .500 to a 54-28 finish.
Two years ago the Jazz were 41-41, which was a huge improvement over going 26-56 the year before. As frustrating as the learning has been, Williams said the Jazz are still a young team that should be aiming higher than simply going a round or two in the playoffs in the future.
``I definitely feel strong that this team can win a championship. We have a great nucleus,'' Williams said. ``If we can keep this team intact, I think we're only going to get better as we play together.''
Sloan said he expects to be back for a 21st season next fall, but always leaves himself the option to change his mind. With the team he has returning and his optimistic remarks Saturday, that's not likely.
``I'm a little bit tired. I didn't sleep the best ever, but there's plenty of time to get caught up on that,'' he said.