CHAMPAIGN, Ill. A jersey hung from the rafters in his honor. A long, loud standing ovation was the response from 13,840 to his introduction. A video montage paid homage during an early timeout to his days not only at the University of Illinois, but also in Utah with the Jazz.
Yet when push came to shove Friday night, and a game was on the line, Deron Williams was just fine with watching from the bench.
The Chicago Bulls' 108-105 victory over the Jazz at Assembly Hall here was, after all, a mere preseason game.
At least that's how Williams seemed to feel after a nine-assist, 14-point, 25-minute night that also included one right-cheek shiner courtesy of Chicago big man Joakim Noah.
"I have enough of those during the season," he said of the pressure situation he watched from afar. "Let the young guys, the guys that might need that experience, get in and be in that situation."
So that they were, Ronnie Price and Morris Almond and Paul Millsap and Kyrylo Fesenko and the veteran among the bunch, Kyle Korver, all on the floor together as the Jazz squandered the 11-point lead that Williams handed over with just more than nine minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
Utah fell behind for good when 23-point, game-high scorer Ben Gordon blew through the lane for a layup, then hit the free throw that followed after he was fouled by Price to make it 104-103 Bulls with one minute and 27 seconds remaining.
A desperation 3-point attempt to force overtime came from Korver at the buzzer, but it caught rim and sent the Jazz to Chicago for tonight's rematch with the Bulls with a 2-3 preseason record.
"We've got to be on the same page defensively," said Price, the Utah Valley product.
"A guy that can score the ball as well as (Gordon) can, you (have to) play the right defense," he added. "And if everybody's not on the same page, you can get hurt. And that's what happened. We got hurt."
Jazz coach Jerry Sloan was feeling the pain as well, responding to a question about All-Star power forward Carlos Boozer's team-high 21 points and 8-of-12 field shooting thusly:
"I think our guys will be ready to play once the exhibition games are (done)," said Sloan, whose club opens regular-season play Oct. 29 vs. Denver. "Unfortunately, they're not as popular as the regular-season games.
"And that's the thing that bugs me," he added, "because I don't ... like to see guys play and they don't bust their butt."
The Jazz coach also was chilled by the fact his club missed 17-of-43 free-throw attempts, including 1-of-5 shooting from the line by starting center Mehmet Okur who did, it should be noted, score 17 points and hit 8-of-11 from the field.
What was heartwarming to Sloan and the rest of the Jazz, however, was how Williams was treated likely royalty in his homecoming.
"He's had a great career here," Sloan said of Williams, a 2008 Team USA Olympic gold medal-winner who helped lead Illinois to the 2005 NCAA championship game against winner North Carolina.
"A lot of love," Duke product Boozer added. "Great support, great fans."
And a great deal of adoration before the game, too, from everyone from his former coach and at least one ex-teammate to his current coach.
"When you go to a team that fits you, the sky's the limit, and he's taken advantage of it," said former Jazz and ex-Illini forward Roger Powell Jr., now a free-agent hopeful with the Bulls.
"He's matured. He's older. He has an understanding about life, about people, about doing the right thing," Illinois coach Bruce Weber added. "You add it all up, and he's made a lot of progress. ... Now I think he wants to be an All-Star, and he wants to win an NBA championship. He wants to be a winner. That's the most important thing, when it comes down to it."
One beneficiary of it all is Sloan, who paid Williams the highest compliment after dropping the names of retired Jazz All-Stars John Stockton and Karl Malone."It's basically all in his hands as to how he wants his career to be how he takes care of himself day-in and day-out," the Jazz coach said. "Because I saw that with two other players, and he's in the same category talent-wise as they are."
Jazz on the air
Utah Jazz at Chicago Bulls
Where: United Center, Chicago
When: Tonight, 7:30 p.m.TV: none; Radio: 1320AM
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