Michael Brandy, Deseret News
LOS ANGELES — For as many times as he's made it clear his Jazz never have had one — the count is so high, most calculators couldn't keep track — the concession that now they very nearly do speaks volumes as to just how Jerry Sloan feels about his present point guard.
Not along ago, after all, Deron Williams was a rookie who couldn't consistently crack Sloan's lineup.
But these days — with his club ready for this afternoon's Game 1 of a first-round playoff series against a Los Angeles Lakers franchise seeking its 15th NBA title — the tough-to-please Jazz coach toes the line of ultimate compliment.
"Every team that plays in the championship usually has a guy that can beat you 1-on-1," he said.
"We've got a guy," added Sloan, whose Jazz are still looking for their first title in franchise history, "that's pretty close to being that way most of the time, and I think he'll get better and better as time goes on."
The Lakers already have their own in reigning NBA MVP Kobe Bryant.
Now Williams, on the downside looking up at a 1-8 seed best-of-seven series, looks to take the next step toward elevating his game to that level.
Already a gold medal-winner with Team USA at last summer's Olympic Games, and an all-NBA Second Team selection after last season, Williams will do so with a supporting cast so frail and fractured the lead may have to play multiple parts.
Usual starting center Mehmet Okur is hobbled by a strained hamstring and, even if he does surprisingly play, won't start today.
Starting small forward C.J. Miles has been sidelined most of the last couple weeks by a dislocated shooting-hand finger.
Starting power forward Carlos Boozer's game has been hampered by a knee surgery, and his head clouded by a pending divorce.
All of which puts the onus on Williams to disprove naysayers who doubt the Jazz can win more than one game against the mighty Lakers.
"I don't want to have to do that," he said. "But I'm gonna do my part to try to win these basketball games.
"You know, I hope we have A.K. (Kirilenko) clicking. I hope we have Booz (Boozer) at 100 percent, (backup shooting guard) Kyle (Korver) coming off the bench shooting. Because that's what we're gonna need," he added. "We tried before to have one or two or three guys win the playoff series, and we can't do that. We're not good enough."
With Boozer in particular struggling last postseason, the Lakers eliminated the Jazz after six games of a second-round series.
Now, those with the defending Western Conference champs have little doubt as to whom Utah will mostly turn — and just how the Jazz will go about trying to pull off the improbable.
"They're going to drive the ball down your throat with Williams," Lakers head coach Phil Jackson said, "and then get to the foul line."
"He is a problem," Bryant added. "He was a problem for us last year, and he will be a problem for us in this series."
It wasn't always that way.
Drafted No. 3 overall out of the University of Illinois in 2005, Williams took time in developing his relationship with Sloan and earning his trust.
The demanding Jazz coach knew what he had on his hands, mind you. But before setting him free, he wanted to break him first.
"Deron Williams," he said, "is an unusual player. He came in as a rookie, and probably picked stuff up as well as anybody you can have.
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