Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Monday's game at Washington marks the halfway point of the NBA season for the Utah Jazz.
It's also time for midterm grades to be handed out.
So, Professor Bell?
"I think we are a solid B. I am reluctant to give us an A just because I think we can do better," said the near-tenure teacher who moonlights as Jazz starting shooting guard Raja Bell.
"I think we have played well," he added. "We have had some trouble at home and some slow starts, but ultimately we have found ways to win games and put ourselves in a position to do some things in the playoffs and have a nice seed."
The Jazz hit their 41st game deadlocked with Oklahoma City atop the Northwest Division with a 27-13 record.
Though that mark is four games better than last year's 23-17 record at this point, Utah finds itself in a similar middle-of-the-pack position as when it ended the 2009-10 campaign.
The Jazz are seven games behind San Antonio's torrid Western Conference-leading pace, and they're about that same distance from being on the playoff bubble.
Utah has stumbled more than usual at EnergySolutions Arena while going 15-7 so far (after only losing nine games at home all last season).
But the Jazz are off to one of their most successful road seasons ever with a stellar 12-6 record away from home.
And they've saved themselves from slow starts and staved off seemingly certain defeats time after time, including an unthinkable 12 comeback victories after trailing by double digits.
In other words, a good first half could have been better. But it also could have been much worse, too.
Bell's B-range grade — somewhere between excellent and average — seems to match the performance so far.
"Well, I don't know what was expected," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said when asked to assess his team's first half of the season. "I think everybody expected us to win 60 to 70 games right off the bat. Then we lose a couple of games and reality sets in."
The major theme of the first 40 games has been that the Jazz might fall, but they don't stay down long.
That hasn't just been the case in their dozen assorted rallies, including seven after falling behind 15 or more. But Utah's bounce-backability has been consistently showcased after losses, too.
Utah has yet to have a losing streak this season, and the Jazz have only lost two games in a row on two occasions.
The first instance came at the beginning of the year, when they were trounced in Denver (110-88) and at home against Phoenix (110-94).
More than two months later, Utah finally had successive setbacks again. Earlier in January, the Jazz fell at home to Atlanta (110-87) and then at Memphis (110-99).
The moral of the story, then, might be that the Jazz simply shouldn't allow their opponents to score 110 points in the second half of the season.
Better yet, their 11-2 record after losses is a sign of resiliency.
It's similar to how their current three-game winning streak after perhaps their worst stretch of the season — losses to the Hawks and Grizzlies followed by trailing at Houston by 16 — shows they have a knack for fighting back.
And the Jazz have had this success despite losing Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver and Wesley Matthews; not having the injury rehabbing Mehmet Okur available much; and injecting new bodies into Sloan's system, including key cogs such as Al Jefferson, Raja Bell and Earl Watson.
That's why the team has even higher hopes for the second semester.
"I think that we have done a good job," Jefferson said. "I think there's a lot more room for improvement. It's going to get even better when Memo continues to get back and get his groove back and bring that vet leadership out there.
"I think it's going to get better for the next 42 games."
Sloan likes that his work-in-progress squad, which has seen multiple contributors step up at various junctures, from Paul Millsap's explosive games in Miami (46 points) and Houston (23 points in the fourth quarter and OT), to the pizazz added off the bench by Watson, Ronnie Price & Co., to MVP-esque moments by Deron Williams.
"I think we're in a good spot. We had some struggles a couple of weeks ago, but we've since rebounded," Bell said. "I think coming back against Houston gave us a nice springboard into these two home games, which were big for us to get before we get on the road trip."
Most importantly, he added, "We're tied for first. ... I'll take that."
Quite frankly, so will Sloan, even if he admits his pupils' essays could have been written sharper and their aptitude tests left room for improvement.
"We still have to learn how to play with each other," Sloan said. "I'd hope that our team will get stronger and come together even more as we go forward."
Meaning, of course, an A is still within reach for the year.
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