SALT LAKE CITY — While the Jazz have been sitting at home for three days twiddling their thumbs —and doing a bit of practicing on the side — the New York Knicks have been busy, playing two games during that time, including one last night at Portland.
So it should be no problem tonight against the tired Knicks for the Jazz, whose last game was a come-from-behind victory over Houston Saturday night. After all, it is the New York Knicks they're playing, right?
A couple of problems with that assumption.
For one thing, the Jazz are playing at EnergySolutions Arena, where they've lost more games (7) than they've lost on the road (6). For another, this isn't the New York Knicks of the past decade we're talking about.
The Knicks are having their best season since 2001-02, with a 21-15 record going into Tuesday night's late game at Portland. It's due in large part to the addition of forward/center Amar'e Stoudemire and point guard Raymond Felton, who were both signed as free agents during the offseason.
Stoudemire, who played eight seasons in Phoenix, is averaging 26.3 points and 9.1 rebounds, while Felton is averaging 18.2 points, five above his career average; and 8.7 assists per game, two above his career average. Stoudemire ranks second in the NBA in scoring behind Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant, while Felton is sixth in the league in assists.
"Having Stoudemire and the point guard, Felton — they've added a couple players that have made a difference for their team," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "Stoudemire is a wonderful player, a very talented guy who is tough to guard because he's so quick as a center and shoots the ball so well out on the perimeter. He's a terrific player and a hard guy to match up with. He's tough to deal with."
Jazz point guard Deron Williams, who was drafted two spots ahead of Felton in the 2005 NBA draft after his Illinois team lost to Felton's North Carolina Tar Heels in the NCAA championship game, says Felton has shown what he can do under coach Mike D'Antoni, who was an assistant coach for the 2008 Olympic team Williams played on.
"Ray has always been talented. He just needed to get in the right system," said Williams. "I thought he was held back at Charlotte. Coach (Larry) Brown is hard to play for, especially point guards. He's hard to please. Knowing coach D'Antoni, he gives him a lot of freedom. He has more confidence."
Another first-year player for the Knicks is Landry Fields, a 6-7 rookie guard from Stanford, who blossomed into a first-team all-Pac-10 player during his senior season. He was picked in the second round by New York, but has been a starter all season.
The other two starters for D'Antoni's fast-paced offense (1st in the NBA at 107.6 points per game) are Wilson Chandler, a fourth-year forward out of DePaul 17.8 points and 6.4 rebounds and Ronny Turiaf. They are still waiting for the return of Danilo Gallinari, a 6-10 third-year player from Italy, who is out with a knee injury and averaging 15.3 points.
The Jazz were able to have two good practices with scrimmages on Monday and Tuesday. Mehmet Okur participated in both and declared himself ready to play tonight. The Jazz should be as healthy as they've been all season.
When asked if it's an advantage to have extra time to practice instead of playing games as New York has, Sloan said, "Each individual player has their preferences on how they handle those things. We've tried to have decent practices so we can stay together. You want to have enough exercise, but don't run them too hard and get somebody hurt."
After tonight's game, the Jazz will play host to Cleveland on Friday before heading out on a four-game road trip next week, beginning Monday afternoon in Washington.