Jazz back, but not quite contenders yet Print
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Thursday, 31 May 2007 12:36
NBA Headline News

 SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -The Utah Jazz made it back to the playoffs, had their longest run in nine years and then showed they still have a ways to go to join the best teams in the Western Conference.
The Jazz were overmatched by the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference finals, losing in five games and ending their best season in nearly a decade with a humbling exit.
``Those are the seeds of what you need to become a champion because there's really no worse feeling in sports than losing that last game. You immediately start to reflect on what you could have done better,'' guard Derek Fisher said Thursday as he and his teammates cleaned out their lockers.
The Spurs had beaten the Jazz 109-84 the night before in a game that indicated the gap between the last two teams remaining in the Western Conference. San Antonio's experience easily trumped Utah's young talent.
While the Spurs got scoring from every position, the Jazz relied on guard Deron Williams and forward Carlos Boozer. Williams averaged 25.8 points and Boozer 21.4. The next highest average was Andrei Kirilenko with 9.2 points.
The ending was messy, both on the court and in the locker room. Williams said after the game that he felt some of his teammates had given up and were already ``on vacation.''
Utah coach Jerry Sloan has no problems with players calling out teammates, but prefers they don't do it publicly.
``I think those things should be kept in the locker room, but they're young players. I'm sure they were frustrated. We were all frustrated a little bit and sometimes you say those things,'' Sloan said.
Sloan wanted the Jazz to learn from the series against the Spurs, but not let it completely overshadow the season. After three straight years of missing the playoffs, the Jazz went the entire season without falling below .500.
Utah's 11-1 start was the best in the NBA and although the Jazz faltered down the stretch, they regrouped and beat the Houston Rockets in seven games - despite losing the first two - and advanced to the second round for the first time since 2000.
The Jazz needed just five games to knock out the Golden State Warriors, who were coming off an upset of top-seeded Dallas in the opening round, to make it to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 1998.
The Spurs quickly doused Utah's hopes for a trip to the NBA finals. San Antonio outplayed Utah and got the young players bickering and blaming as the series unraveled.
``It's something we can learn from. How they pass the ball, how they shoot the ball,'' Williams said. ``They really don't care who gets the glory. As long as they're winning that's all that matters.''
Sloan, who normally says he won't decide whether to return for another season until a few weeks after it ends, said Thursday he expects to be back for a 20th straight year. With the team he has coming back, there is plenty of incentive.
The Jazz have only three players heading into free agency - rookie point guard Dee Brown, shooting guard C.J. Miles and center Rafael Araujo. The main contributors are under contract for several more years, including Williams, who has taken over the team after just two years in the league.
After years of unsuccessful tryouts to find a successor to John Stockton, Williams has emerged into the team's youngest leader. Critics questioned whether the Jazz should have taken him instead of Chris Paul with the No. 3 overall pick in 2005.
Nobody is second-guessing the pick anymore.
Boozer, injured for about half of his first two years with the Jazz, had the best season of his career by averaging 20.9 points and 11.7 rebounds. He increased his output in the playoffs to 23.5 points and 12.2 rebounds.
Boozer and Williams are the first combination to come close to the standard Stockton and Karl Malone set for so long in Utah. The Jazz hadn't had a winning season since Stockton retired in 2003 and Malone left that summer as a free agent.
Utah went 51-31 during the regular season, a 10-game improvement over 2006, and made the playoffs for the first time in four years. Just two years ago, the Jazz finished 26-56 and the rebuilding from the Stockton-Malone era had a long way to go.
Progress has been made, but work remains.
``We have our nucleus,'' Williams said. ``We just need to add a few pieces to get it done.''
 

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