Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Jazz center Al Jefferson has witnessed quite the transformation when it comes to Orlando's seemingly superheroic center.
"I've (known) him for a long time and kind of watched him grow up from Dwight Howard to Superman," Jefferson said. "It's always a great challenge going against him."
Big Al will get the chance to tug at Howard's cape — maybe even throw some kryptonite in his direction — tonight in a Magic-Jazz rematch at EnergySolutions Arena.
"It's always tough to go against the best defensive player in the league," Jefferson said. "(And) he's getting better and better on his offensive game."
Howard was hampered by foul problems and a feisty Jazz defense in the teams' first meeting this season — the third of Utah's eight double-digit-deficity defying victories. The Magic center finished with just 14 points and nine rebounds, and Utah went on a game-changing run to mostly erase an 18-point Orlando lead while Howard sat on the bench for several minutes in the second half.
The Northwest Division-leading Jazz (16-7) are expecting Southeast Division-frontrunner Orlando, 15-6 going into a late Thursday game at Portland, to be extra motivated in this match-up.
"Tough team, playoff team — we'd just better be ready," Jazz point guard Deron Williams said of the Magic. "We've already beat them once, so we know they're going to want revenge for that loss at home."
Bottling up Howard is easier written than done, but it's a big key to overcoming Orlando. Howard averages 20.9 points, 12.1 rebounds and 2.4 blocks.
"Meet Dwight early, not let him have low position," Williams said, pointing out strategy against Howard. "Once he gets within 5 feet of the basket, he's almost impossible to stop. You've got to try to contain him as best as possible."
But the Jazz are also cognizant of the Magic's outside weapons, including Vince Carter and Jameer Nelson. Williams said the Jazz need to close out on the shooters as quickly as possible.
But Orlando is definitely a multi-dimensional threat.
"They've got the big guy inside that makes it tough for you to get easy baskets in the paint," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said. "They've got some very talented guys that can shoot the ball out on the perimeter, which they're good at. Just a very good team, tough to beat."
NO SILVER LINING: Putting up an impressive 25 points and 11 rebounds might have given Jefferson satisfaction for a little bit longer in previous seasons.
But the fact it came in Utah's 111-98 loss to Miami took any possible joy out of Wednesday's double-double.
"It's funny because I'm so used to losing last year, it kind of became a part of me," Jefferson said at Thursday's practice. "But now when we lose a game it sticks with me more, a lot longer until we win again. So … I just want to put it behind me."
In that regard, he picked the right sport.
"The good thing about this league … you lose one, you don't have to wait a whole week like football do to try to recover," Jefferson said. "We've got one (tonight). We've got a big one (tonight)."
STREAK-SNAPPERS: The Heat's 110-98 win at Utah on Wednesday ended several long streaks for the Jazz. Before Wednesday, Utah was 10-0 when entering the fourth quarter with a lead; 8-0 against the Eastern Conference; and 3-0 when all five starters scored in double digits. The Jazz had also held 11 consecutive opponents below 100 points, with Oklahoma City being the last to break the century scoring mark against Utah in a 115-108 win on Nov. 15.
MISC.: Jazz guard Ronnie Price was excused from Thursday's practice for personal reasons. ... Starters Andrei Kirilenko (strained right quadriceps) and Raja Bell (strained right adductor) are game-time decisions tonight. ... Backup Kyrylo Fesenko is no longer sporting a walking boot on his sprained left ankle but his availability remains day-to-day.
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