DENVER — Shortly after 7 tonight, a referee will toss an orange orb into the air at midcourt of the Pepsi Center, and athletic behemoths from Utah and Denver will begin their annual basketball ballet.
This, of course, explains why smiles and superlatives have been so abundant around the Utah Jazz lately.
This Jazz team — a refreshingly enthusiastic blend of returning talent and new contributors — can't wait for the 2010-11 NBA season to tip off.
New Jazzman Al Jefferson, who's never entered a season with a contender before, believes Utah could be taking the first steps toward accomplishing "something really special."
Same goes for Raja Bell, who's about to play his first regular-season game with the Jazz since leaving for Phoenix five years ago.
"As a team, we're all pretty excited," Bell said, "because we know that we care about each other, that we play for each other and that if we do that night in and night out and play hard, we'll have a chance to do some pretty cool things."
The outlook didn't seem nearly that bright at times since the Jazz were eliminated for the third straight postseason in a row by the Los Angeles Lakers.
As if that deja-vu disappointment weren't enough, Utah lost two-time All-Star Carlos Boozer, who helped the team win a whole lot of games the past six seasons despite injuries and some foot-in-mouth/heart-elsewhere issues.
The Jazz also saw their most dangerous outside threat, Kyle Korver, sign with the Chicago Bulls. And fiscally conscious management opted to let Portland claim Utah's discovered shooting guard gem, Wesley Matthews, for a not-so-small fortune.
Add the fact that the highly anticipated New York Knicks pick slipped to No. 9 and didn't result in the Jazz picking up a promising big man, and people inside and outside of the organization wondered how bleak the future might be.
Even Williams, the team's captain and shining star, admitted to being "frustrated" this past summer over the front office's business decisions.
That mood changed quickly, and the happiness and hope level for Jazz fans and players alike have continued to increase.
Shortly after losing Boozer and Korver, general manager Kevin O'Connor pulled of a major trade coup. In July, he swapped a couple of draft picks, Kosta Koufos and a get-out-of-NBA-jail card with Minnesota for Jefferson, a proven low-post power who made a habit of posting 20 points and 10 rebounds on bad teams.
Shortly after that, Utah countered losing Matthews to the Jazz family breaker (aka Portland) by persuading Bell, a savvy defender and reliable outside shooter, to rejoin Jerry Sloan instead of going to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Veterans Earl Watson and Francisco Elson also were picked up to bolster the bench. Rookies Gordon Hayward and Jeremy Evans, meanwhile, came in and showed they very well could contribute as first-year players.
Next thing you know, Jefferson looks like an All-Star in the making, the Jazz go 8-0 in the preseason and everybody in Utah is singing "zippity do da" heading into tonight's season-opening showdown with their Northwest Division rivals.
"I've been excited about this team since we made all of our acquisitions," Williams said. "I felt like we got tougher, which is big, (and) got better defensively.
"Those two things," he added, "definitely matter in a playoff race and in the playoffs."
It isn't just the new guys in town who have Williams and his teammates all jazzed up for the season.
Entering his sixth NBA campaign, the 23-year-old C.J. Miles has played, at times, like he's capable of having a breakout season as the Jazz's sixth man.
Center Kyrylo Fesenko reported to camp in the best shape of his life, and has played and practiced like it.
Ronnie Price has shown flashes of what his exciting energy can bring to the team this preseason, too.
And that's not to mention rehabbing Mehmet Okur, the 6-foot-11 sharpshooter who will give the Jazz even more depth and another offensive weapon when he returns from his Achilles heel rehab.
The starting lineup of Williams, Bell, Andrei Kirilenko, Paul Millsap and Jefferson doesn't look all that shabby, either. Quite the opposite.
"We're deep," Jefferson said. "Every guy on this team, one through 13, is a go-getter. They want to win. They play hard. They play well. The second unit is just as good as that first unit, and to me that's amazing."
Also amazing to many is the fact that Jefferson, who could be Utah's new tourism director, continues to pinch himself about playing for the Jazz.
Make no mistake. The excitement Jefferson and others have for being in Utah — and not pining about playing in greener pastures — is working wonders for the Jazz's team chemistry.
All the more reason why optimism is in no short supply along the Wasatch Front (and in the Mile High City tonight).
"All of the guys like each other. We've got a good group," Williams said. "We've got guys that know their roles. We've got guys that are looking to step up and have a bigger role, which we need. … We feel like we're a deep team."
It's also a team that has a strong mix of talent, hard workers and veteran leadership.
"Since John (Stockton) and Karl (Malone) left," O'Connor said, "this is probably the most mature team we've had."
Considering the Jazz won 53 games last season and were in the Western Conference Finals only three years ago, that could bode well for Utah's chances of challenging the Lakers and fending off contenders like Dallas, Oklahoma City, Portland, San Antonio and Denver.
"I'm definitely excited for this season. It's a fresh start for everybody," Williams said. "We've got some new guys that are getting fresh starts, but then in a sense it's a fresh start for all of us. It's a new team, new expectations."
One expectation will remain the same tonight as the Jazz begin their 23rd season under Sloan's command: winning.
"I think this team can win games," the Hall of Fame coach said.
For Sloan, the unknown is how the team will respond to setbacks — and even to success. Will they fight together or fall apart?
"You just hope that they realize this is a long season," Sloan said, "and staying together is important to be able to have a chance to win — plus avoiding injuries."
For now, the Jazz are just glad the talking can end and the playing can begin.
"Preseason's over. Now let's see what everybody's got," a more-confident-than-ever Fesenko said. "I'm really excited. I think it's going to be a great year for us, a new team. I think we can go all the way."
Utah at Denver
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Pepsi Center, Denver
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