MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Three in a row.
Whether they look forward or in their rear-view mirror, that's what the Utah Jazz can see right now.
Three in a row.
For the first time this season, they've lost three straight games. And, beginning Sunday night, they face a scheduling rarity brought about by last year's lengthy NBA lockout — back-to-back-to-back games.
Yes, three games in three nights in three different cities, beginning with tonight's game against the Memphis Grizzlies. That'll be followed by a game on Monday in New Orleans against the Hornets and then a third straight game on Tuesday at Oklahoma City against the Thunder, who shot down the Jazz 101-87 late Friday night at EnergySolutions Arena.
"We have to be smart about making sure we do everything to try and keep the guys as fresh as we can," Utah coach Tyrone Corbin said. "We're approaching each game with a plan to, first of all, have a chance to win the game but also preserve as much energy as we can for the following night and then to get to the third night, which is going to be the toughest one of all in Oklahoma City."
They always say that bad things come in threes and, both behind them and ahead of them, it's tough times these days for this Utah team.
Since a win over Portland on Jan. 30 raised their record to 12-7, the Jazz have lost five of their last six games. In falling to 13-12 overall, it's conceivable they could return home from this difficult road trip with a losing record for the first time in more than five weeks.
Defense — or, rather, a lack of the same — has definitely been the culprit in Utah's recent tailspin, and particularly the way opposing teams' guards have been lighting up the Jazz over the past few games.
It started on Feb. 1 against the L.A. Clippers, when Chris Paul poured in 34 points as the Clippers came away with a highly rare road win in Salt Lake City, 107-105. The next night, Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry combined for 62 points as Golden State steamed past Utah 119-101.
A victory over the L.A. Lakers momentarily stopped the bleeding, but then the Jazz traveled back East and allowed the NBA's newest phenomenon, Jeremy Lin, to light 'em up for 28 points — 13 in the fourth quarter — as the short-handed N.Y. Knicks knocked off the Jazz 99-88. And the next night another point guard, Indiana's Darren Collison, had his way with the Jazz in pacing the Pacers to a 104-99 win.
Then came Friday's late-night loss to the Thunder, who got 28 points from point guard Russell Westbrook, and there certainly seems to be a recurring theme that's causing the Jazz fits.
"We've got to get back to the basics," said Corbin. "We've got to get back to work and we can't feel sorry for ourselves. We've got to make sure we continue to understand the things that we're slipping at.
"Our defensive efforts have been pretty consistent, but we have a little lull on both ends and it happens at the same time. Defensively we have a little lull and offensively we have a little lull, and as a result we don't score and the team gets a run against us. We'll make sure we continue to talk about the things that we need to get better at on both ends of the floor.
"We're letting the guards break us down a little bit too much," Corbin said. "They're getting in the paint and scoring at the basket or they're collapsing our defense and being able to swing it out to their shooters on the perimeter. So we've got to do a little better job, first of all, of staying between our man and the basket and not letting the guy break us down, where we have to put two guys on the ball and then they kick it out and they've got our guys in a scramble mode too soon. We've got to make sure we clean that up."
It all starts with Sunday night's game at Memphis, which dropped a 94-85 decision to the Jazz five weeks ago at EnergySolutions Arena.
The Grizzlies have been a streaky team for much of this season. Their loss to Utah back on Jan. 6 started a three-game losing spell, but then they won seven straight. That was followed by four consecutive losses, and then back-to-back wins, followed by three straight losses and then two more back-to-back wins.
After losing talented big man Zach Randolph early in the season, Memphis has seemingly found a way to overcome his huge loss and has won 11 of its last 18 games with 7-1 center Marc Gasol, 6-8 forward Rudy Gay and quick point guard Mike Conley picking up the slack.
"They're playing better," Corbin said. "They're a confident team now, they've gotten used to Zach being out of the lineup for them, and Gasol has picked up his tempo a little bit for them and he's having a great year.
And Rudy Gay's gotten in better shape after being out for such an extended amount of time.
"They're running a lot of pick-and-rolls, they're attacking the basket, they do a good job of passing the ball and they're a tough-nosed team that's going to fight you hard for everything on the defensive end of the floor."
And while the Jazz would like nothing better than to maintain their strong success against the Grizzlies, who have only beaten Utah 16 times in 61 meetings all-time, there's a bigger picture at play this week as the Jazz must try and save as much energy as possible so they'll have something left in the tank for Monday's game at New Orleans and Tuesday's contest at OKC.
"We look at who we're playing and we've made tweaks in minutes with some guys," Corbin said. "If we get opportunities to rest some guys at times, we will. We'll probably use a few more guys early on, give ourselves a chance to be ready for the third game.
"But we have to give ourselves an honest chance to win the games that we're playing that night, so we can't not play guys and have them not be in the game because we're resting them. We've got to just play it out and make sure we've given ourselves a good chance to win that game but preserve guys as much as we can."
Corbin was playing for the Atlanta Hawks the last time the NBA endured a lockout-shortened season, in the 1998-99 campaign. And the Jazz coach, who was 37 years old at the time, recalls how difficult it was to play three games in three nights.
"It was tough, man," he said. "It was the first time for me. A lot of these guys have played AAU ball where they play three or four games in a day, but for me it was the first time that I've actually played three games back-to-back-to-back. And I was older and I had no idea how tired I would be by that third night.6 comments on this story
"You're used to four games in five nights and back-to-backs all the time, but that third game, man, it was tough. You see things and your mind says 'Go get it' and your feet just won't move," he added with a laugh.
"So it's going to be different for them. We've tried to manage guys' minutes most of the year. We don't have anybody that's playing astronomical minutes, but it still takes a toll on you because there's so many games in such a short amount of time. So we've got to make sure that we try and give these guys the best chance we can to make sure they're as fresh as they can be."
So that, hopefully, three losses in a row doesn't turn into four … or five … or six in a row.