LOS ANGELES — Somewhere along the line, the Utah Jazz lost their nasty. It stole out of town on a night train, or maybe took a flight to the coast, leaving no forwarding address.
It might have been when Karl Malone took his double-wide shoulders down to L.A. to finish out his career, and John Stockton said no mas. Or it could have occurred when Mehmet Okur and Carlos Boozer — skilled offensive players, but flawed when protecting the hoop — showed up.
In any case, it's no longer the old black-and-blue, Jerry Sloan Jazz.
"I think we used to feel that way, but I don't think teams regard us that way any more," said forward Matt Harpring.
One game into the playoffs, the Jazz are doing what Sloan always talked about: playing like they're wearing tuxedos.
Eager to get to the hoop? Step right this way. There's no waiting in Aisle Four.
As TNT announcer Charles Barkley noted, "It's tough to win a game when your coach is the toughest guy on your team."
Who knew the Jazz would get so accommodating so fast?
After Sunday's 113-100 loss to the Lakers, Sloan said in a resigned tone, "We're not a nasty team. Most teams we've had have been pretty nasty. They'd get after you like daylight after dark."
Not so much anymore. This year's team seems suspended in some sort of twilight.
"Part of that's my fault," Sloan added. "I take full responsibility for that. I haven't probably been nasty enough with 'em."
It must have been a delightful practice on Monday.
While it's true past Jazz teams have been tougher, and more willing to knock other players down, it's not like everyone was a walking menace. Chris Morris, Shandon Anderson, Bryon Russell, Carlos Arroyo, Curtis Borchardt and DeShawn Stevenson never scared anyone. It's Jazz legend how Greg Ostertag ducked and covered when Shaquille O'Neal smacked him during a shootaround.
Still, at one time the players who set the tone were tough and rough. John Stockton was accused by opponents of working their insides like a prizefighter. Karl Malone knocked David Robinson out with an elbow and unhinged the teeth of many a hanger-on. Antoine "Big Dog" Carr mostly barked, but occasionally decked an opponent. Raja Bell was always semi-scuffling with someone.
Today's Jazz still have some tough guys, most specifically Harpring, Paul Millsap and Deron Williams — players who don't like the thought of giving up ground.
Yet in large part, the Jazz know they're soft.
Asked if they had lost their nasty, Andrei Kirilenko replied, "I don't really know what nasty means."
He's not alone.
When told it means meanness and toughness, he replied, "I don't think it's meanness, I think it's concentration."
Truthfully, the Jazz haven't had nastiness, meanness, toughness or concentration — or whatever you label it — for most of this year. If they did, they wouldn't have lost to New York, Golden State or Minnesota. Which raises the obvious question of whether they can acquire it overnight.
"We're gonna have to," said Harpring. "We'll see."
Pressed about whether he had ever seen a team do so, Harpring replied, "No. Usually it's a trademark of your team the whole year."
Exactly what the Jazz can do now is debatable. But if Sloan has his way, the first time a Laker goes inside for a layup, tonight in Game 2, someone will knock him into a different zip code.
More likely it's too late to change.
Nevertheless, Sloan was taking a fairly positive approach before practice Monday. He pointed out that the Jazz lost on the road in Houston three times in 2007, yet regrouped to win Game 7 on the road. That led to a trip to the Western Conference Finals.
"You want to push yourselves every time you play and try to get that edge and gain some confidence in yourself," said Sloan. "It's amazing what can happen if you put out the effort. If you don't put out the effort, it's probably not going to happen."
Nasty, it seems, is a conscious decision.
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