|After reaching Western Conference finals, Jazz hope to do even better this time|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 26 October 2007 01:46|
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -The Utah Jazz are coming off their best season in nine years. Whether they can capitalize on the experience and go further this time will depend on how much the young team learned.|
The Jazz reached the Western Conference finals in their first playoff appearance since 2003.
``A lot of us grew up. A lot of us realized how good our offense could be, how good our defense could be,'' said Carlos Boozer, one was one of six Utah players making their postseason debut. ``I think we realized the capability of this team and how we can come together.''
The Jazz also learned just how quickly they can fall apart. After overcoming a 2-0 series deficit against Houston in the first round and then beating Golden State in the second, Utah ran into the San Antonio Spurs and lost a one-sided series.
San Antonio went on to win the NBA title after dispatching Utah in five games, making the Jazz look like the playoff newbies they were. It was an unpleasant lesson that coach Jerry Sloan hopes registered.
``We'll find out. We hope that the bottom line is that they will want to win more,'' Sloan said. ``You hope that they can learn winning is fun when you put a lot into it. It takes a lot to do it every single day during the regular season.''
Sloan is entering his 20th season coaching the Jazz and finally has some reason to be optimistic. He has a young team with playoff experience and the core players are back.
The biggest exception is guard Derek Fisher, who asked to be released from his contract because of his 1-year-old daughter's treatment for cancer. The Jazz reluctantly agreed and Fisher has since returned to the Los Angeles Lakers, his first team.
During his only season in Utah, Fisher didn't provide the offense the Jazz had hoped he would, but there was no question his leadership pushed the younger players through the playoff run.
``You can't just plug in experience. That has to be earned,'' Boozer said. ``D-Fish is very missed right now.''
Boozer is a logical choice to replace him, along with third-year guard Deron Williams, whose assist average of 9.3 was second only to Steve Nash.
It's a point guard/power forward combination the Jazz haven't had since 2003, the end of the John Stockton and Karl Malone era.
``Obviously, Coach has given us the reins to take over and we have,'' Boozer said. ``We're going to continue to lead our team by example. We have a lot on our shoulders but we're up for that challenge every night.''
One of those challenges is going to be keep the locker room atmosphere happy. It wasn't last year, especially at the end.
Boozer and Williams both averaged more than 20 points against the Spurs, but nobody else scored in double figures. Williams noted the lack of support and accused unnamed teammates of giving up and starting vacation early.
The animosity was revived two weeks before training camp when former All-Star Andrei Kirilenko announced that he was unhappy playing for Sloan and wanted to be traded. Williams countered with some shots about Kirilenko's carefree attitude.
The Jazz have tried to keep the spat from escalating into anything more and it didn't seem to be an issue during the preseason.
Kirilenko sat down with Sloan and Jazz management before camp and both sides have been trying to adjust. Sloan, not exactly known for practicing positive reinforcement, has backed off slightly on his criticism and Kirilenko has kept his mouth shut about any additional gripes.
``Andrei's been terrific. He's worked very hard and just concentrated on basketball,'' Sloan said. ``We want to see him do well. We've never coached a guy yet we wanted to see fail.''
The Jazz could use a happy, or at least content, Kirilenko. The Jazz offense was largely Boozer and Williams last season and Kirilenko grew frustrated as his averages for scoring, rebounding and steals dropped to career lows. His 144 blocks were barely better than the 136 he had two years before, when his season was cut in half by injuries.
Kirilenko is still the starter at small forward, joining Boozer and center Mehmet Okur on Utah's front line. Williams, who played for the United States team that won the FIBA Americas tournament, has quickly established himself as one of the league's top young point guards.
``I didn't have to worry about making mistakes and coming out. I just got to go out there and play free and I had a lot of confidence,'' said Williams, who also averaged 16.2 points. ``When you have that confidence it's easier to do a lot of things.''
Without Fisher, the Jazz will have a new shooting guard and Ronnie Brewer, Utah's first-round pick in the 2006 draft, appears to have claimed the job with a strong preseason and summer league.
Williams said the Jazz want to go further than last year. That would mean reaching the NBA finals, which would take winning a conference that includes the Spurs, Mavericks and Suns.
But the Jazz are thinking big.
``We want to try to win the championship,'' Williams said. ``We feel that with the guys we have here, with the coaches we have, there's no reason we shouldn't win the championship in the next couple of years.''
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