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 SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -The Utah Jazz hoped that having nearly every player return from last season would help take them from the middle of the playoffs to the end.
The Jazz will still have everybody back, but not right away.
Utah will open the season without starting point guard Deron Williams, who sprained his ankle in the preseason and is expected to miss at least the first two games. It may end up being more because the Jazz will not rush the return of Williams, who has made Utah a contender again in the Western Conference.
Without Williams, just reaching the playoffs would be an achievement for the Jazz.
``We can't do anything about it, other than hope he gets healthy as soon as possible,'' said Jerry Sloan, who is in his 21st season coaching the Jazz. ``Our job still remains the same regardless of who's here.''
in the late 1990s.
The Jazz won 54 games last season and a second straight division title. Making the playoffs was an accomplishment two years ago, but this season the Jazz have their sites on the finals - and not just the conference finals.
``We're going to come out here, try to dominate and try to get a championship,'' said forward Carlos Boozer, who won an Olympic gold medal with Williams on the U.S. national team in August. ``Whoever we have to go through, we go through them.''
The Jazz couldn't get past the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round of the playoffs last spring. Two years ago, it was the San Antonio Spurs knocking out Utah in the Western Conference Finals. The Jazz have had very little turnover from the last two seasons and think they have the experience they need to beat the rest of the West.
``Our goal is to play in the NBA finals. I think everybody understands that,'' forward Andrei Kirilenko said.
All five starters are back, although Kirilenko has taken a new role coming off the bench during the preseason as Matt Harpring recovers from an infection that put him in the hospital this summer.
Sloan replaced Kirilenko with swingman C.J. Miles, who has had a limited role since he went straight from high school to the Jazz three years ago. The Jazz had to match an offer sheet from Oklahoma City in order to keep Miles this summer.
int guard injury rotation, a role that got bigger when Williams rolled his ankle in an exhibition game Oct. 18 at Chicago. It was a frightening for the Jazz to see Williams, who averaged 19 points and 10.5 assists last season, carried off the court.
``My first thought was I was going to miss the whole season,'' Williams said. ``I was happy when the X-rays were negative.''
Williams was diagnosed last Monday with a second-degree sprain that would keep him out ``a minimum'' of two weeks. Until then, one-time undrafted free agent Ronnie Price and veteran Brevin Knight, who was traded to Utah over the summer, will be the point guards.
Harpring has been working to get back in shape since a strep infection from surgery on his ankle and once he's back the Jazz will be well-stocked at forward, especially if switching Miles for Kirilenko sticks.
Sloan has liked having the one-time All-Star as his sixth man.
``I hope that works out. Andrei has played awfully well coming off the bench,'' Sloan said. ``I think he's made those guys a little more comfortable playing the game.''
The Jazz are so deep they have little room for second-year shooting guard Morris Almond, who averaged 25.6 points for the Utah Flash in the Development League last season. First-round draft pick Kosta Koufos, a center who played just one year of college, is likely to spend much of his rookie season in the D-League.
the Jazz are young, this may be the team's best chance to make a run at a title. Boozer, Okur and forward Kyle Korver, who helped turn around Utah from a .500 team to a division champion when he was traded to the Jazz in December, can all opt out of their contracts after the season.
It would be very expensive for any other team to try to pick up Boozer, an All-Star selection the last two years, or Okur. But it would also be costly for the Jazz to re-sign them next summer, when reserve forward Paul Millsap will also be among Utah's free agents.
Sloan, who needs five wins to become the first NBA coach to win 1,000 games with one team, is 66 and considers every summer whether he wants to keep coaching. So far he's been unwilling to give up on the game or the Jazz, who have quickly rebuilt since Stockton retired and Malone left as a free agent in 2003.
Sloan said all the returning players and the chemistry his players talk about will mean little if they didn't work hard over the summer. It's essentially the same team that went 37-4 at home last season, but also was just 17-24 on the road. That kind of disparity will not win an NBA title.
``This team has talent, but talent doesn't win on the road for you,'' Sloan said. ``When your statistics aren't as good at home as they are at home, then there's something missing there and that's probably going to cost you.''
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